Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands, by Chris Bohjalian

closeyoureyesIn the first few pages, I thought Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands was going to be a futuristic dystopian novel. But it quickly becomes apparent that it’s set in the present day — or as near the present as makes no difference, next year or the year after — and that the dystopia is very localized rather than global. A nuclear power plant in northern Vermont experiences a meltdown, leaving nineteen people dead and thousands homeless.

Among the dead are the parents of sixteen-year-old Emily Shephard. Not only are they dead; they are being blamed posthumously for the disaster, which has been credited to “human error” — Emily’s father was an engineer at the plant, her mother was in charge of public relations, and both had a drinking problem. Emily’s family is a loving but troubled one; she’s been a difficult teenager both at home and at school. She’s also an only child and so are both her parents, so in the aftermath of the tragedy she has — or, at least, thinks she has — no place to go.

Terrified to reveal her true identity, trusting no-one, and hounded by anxiety, Emily goes from one bad decision to another, resorting to theft, drug abuse, self-harm and prostitution, eventually reduced to living in an igloo made of frozen garbage bags. But she’s also wonderfully resilient and kind-hearted, and when she find a nine-year-old runaway foster child who also has nowhere to go, Emily thinks she might just have found a reason to stay alive.

Throughout it all, Emily’s voice is sharp, perceptive, and humourous despite the tragedies all around her. Her story unfolds in an almost stream-of-consciousness narrative as she relates the events of the last year out of order, as the memories crop up. I suspect most readers’ appreciation of the novel will hinge largely on how much they respond to Emily’s voice and empathize with her, but for me, this was a completely engrossing book and I couldn’t put it down.

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