If the dystopian coming-of-age novel has been the inspiration for many a Hollywood blockbuster in recent years, the increasingly ubiquitous genre more closely resembles literary fiction in critically acclaimed author Chris Bohjalian’s Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands.
For readers who discovered Bohjalian after his luminous Midwives became an Oprah’s Book Club selection, the prolific author’s latest novel will not disappoint: He once again reveals an uncanny talent for crafting a young female protagonist who is fatally flawed, but nevertheless immensely likable.
Emily Shepard is a high school student struggling with a typical adolescence—until her comfortable life is torn asunder after a catastrophic meltdown at a Vermont nuclear plant, where her parents are employed. As Armageddon annihilates the once idyllic Northeast Kingdom, Emily’s father, who was once disciplined for drinking on the job, and her mother, who is also renowned for her alcohol-fueled escapades, become scapegoats.
Orphaned and alone, Emily joins the ranks of homeless teens wandering the streets of Burlington, her intelligence and passion for poet Emily Dickinson coexisting warily alongside a tawdry life riddled by drugs and prostitution. Indeed, it is Emily’s inherent integrity and capacity to endure that proves her salvation.
Although Bohjalian’s latest novel is unflinchingly raw in its depiction of homelessness and the devastation of a nuclear meltdown, it never feels preachy or maudlin. Instead, it resonates with a message of hope, truth and the fragility of life.