July 13, 2014

A teenager loses her family after a nuclear meltdown in Chris Bohjalian’s new novel

A teenage girl loses her family after a nuclear power plant meltdown — and starts a strange new life.

Emily Shepard, the narrator of Chris Bohjalian’s Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands, is a self-described troubled teen. And that’s before everything goes bad.

Emily’s father is the chief engineer at Cape Abenaki nuclear power plant, and her mother handles its public relations. And drinks. Both her parents do. Then nuclear Reactor Number One explodes. The blast kills Emily’s parents and turns her Vermont hometown into an exclusion zone.

With post-apocalyptic trappings and crossover young-adult reader appeal, Bohjalian’s 16th novel looks to be something new. Thematically, though, there’s much in common with the Vermont author’s previous works. Like Water Witches, it explores the damage we’ve done to the environment out of greed and ignorance. Nuclear power, as Emily is told, is “our bargain with Mephistopheles. Unfortunately, radioactivity lasts as long as the soul.” Like Bohjalian bestsellers including The Sandcastle Girls and Midwives, the novel hinges on a flawed character forged by extreme circumstances.

Before Cape Abenaki, Emily is your basic angsty adolescent. After the disaster, she becomes swept up — or down — into a flotsam of drugs, self-mutilation, petty theft, prostitution and homeless shelters. She creates a refuge of her own making, an igloo made of ice and “black plastic trash bags filled with wet leaves.” This fortress of detritus doesn’t offer much protection from the cold, but it’s a powerful metaphor for a 16-year old girl who has lost everything.

Emily has affinity for another Emily, Emily Dickinson. Like the poet, she can be cypher and seer. She keeps a journal after the blast, promising to “tell you only the things that I know for a fact are true.” Dickinson herself urged, “Tell all the truth but tell it slant/Success in Circuit lies,” advice Bohjalian has taken too much to heart. He’s played with chronology to good effect in previous novels, including his most recent book, The Light in the Ruins. Here, though, Emily’s out-of-sequence narration engenders more confusion than suspense. As she notes, “I seem to narration be jumping around a lot. ... I should probably try and organize my thoughts.” Well, that would help readers.

So would more deeply imagined scenes and fuller supporting characters. Bohjalian’s image of Emily’s trash igloo is haunting and resonant. However, as gritty as Emily’s life has become, the author never seems quite able to enter into it. Instead, Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands often reads like a checklist of hot young-adult subjects rather than as a fully integrated novel, with Emily treating us to pronouncements like “just how tribal life on the edge of the street was. ... A high school bunch of mean girls is nothing compared to a clique of homeless kids or runaways. We’re talking pig-on-a-stick tribal.” She doesn’t quite have Emily Dickinson’s way with language.

Emily’s coarse way of speech masks desperation and fear, but at times reveals glimpses of Emily’s character, resonating in a way Dickinson’s elliptical wordplay may not. After a month, the Cape Abenaki explosion “is just another bit of old news. Tsunamis. School shootings. Syria. We watch it, we read about it, and then we move on. As a species, we’re either very resilient or super callous. I don’t know which.”

With the generous Bohjalian, resilient is the surer bet. He has long endowed his characters with a spark of humanity, even in the midst of brutality. Emily’s downward spiral is halted when she lets her guard down and risks an attachment to someone. Bohjalian takes a nice risk here, too — rather than give Emily a first teenage love, he gives her Cameron, fellow runaway and “nine-year-old kid. ... Obviously, I wasn’t his mom, but already I’d figured out that I had some responsibility for him. ... No matter what, I was going to keep him safe.”

Safe is a relative term in Close Your Eyes Hold Hands. The tone is dark, perhaps too dark for the author to sustain. In this erratic novel, hope is not the thing with feathers.

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