Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Book Review: Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands by Chris Bohjalian

Chernobyl. Three Mile Island. Fukushima. The mere mention of these disasters is enough to place a knot of dread in the stomach. In his new novel Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands, author Chris Bohjalian examines a similar incident, albeit fictional. In his tale, a nuclear plant in Vermont suffers a meltdown, with disastrous consequences for those in the region.

Prior to reading the novel, I heard labels thrown around like "science fiction", "dystopian", and "apocalyptic". In fact, many people on Goodreads categorize it as such. I was pleased to see little to no evidence that this book belongs in any of these categories. Although I suppose it could loosely be considered science fiction, in that it deals with the possible consequences of technology. However, according to, which I frequently use in teaching middle school ELA, science fiction
"stories often tell about science and technology of the future. . . . [It] creates situations different from those of both the present day and the known past. Science fiction texts also include a human element, explaining what effect new discoveries, happenings and scientific developments will have on us in the future. Science fiction texts are often set in the future, in space, on a different world, or in a different universe or dimension." (source link)
Bohjalian fictionalizes an occurrence -- a nuclear disaster -- that has happened before. Nuclear power plants currently exist, and have for many decades. It is not set in a futuristic time or place; in fact, Bohjalian's characters often reference recent news items such as 9/11 and the Newtown, Connecticut, school shooting. The setting is present-day Vermont. Does it fit into the "speculative fiction" category? It could, although I am not convinced that anyone fully understands the definition of speculative fiction.

Labels aside, what makes the book special is the perspective from which Bohjalian chooses to write. Narrating this remarkable tale is Emily Shepard, homeless since the disaster, like many "walkers" as they are referred to -- people who were forced to simply walk away from their homes, their family, their lives. [One more aside regarding labels -- the term "walkers" seems to insinuate a sci-fi/ apocalyptic scenario. It is simply a term like "refugees", and I equated them with people displaced by Hurricane Katrina.] Emily has made her own way since then, although it has been a difficult path. She has been resourceful, building an igloo out of trash bags filled with frozen leaves for protection from the harsh winter climate. Emily's voice is the shining star of this narrative, at once worldly and naive, wise and young. Her story is one of both loss and survival.

Although the story itself is marvelous, Bohjalian's focus on Emily raises the novel to a higher level. Many tales have been told after disasters -- about Hurricane Katrina alone, dozens of books, both fiction and nonfiction have been written. The same is true for most any disaster, human-made or natural. But Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands tells more about the human condition than it tells about the disaster. I'm not sure any other author has taken this path.

You see, both of Emily's parents worked at the nuclear plant; her father was in charge the day of the meltdown. By giving Emily a voice, Bohjalian has flipped the switch on our usual disaster narrative, making sympathetic a character who many fictional characters in the novel blame. In reading this novel, I was forced to think about New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin's family, or Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco's family. Even (on an entirely different level, obviously) the 9/11 hijackers' families. In writing an entire novel from the point of view of a family member of someone vilified for their role in a disaster, Bohjalian reminds us of their humanness and forces us to examine our feelings.

While the novel is narrated by a teenager, the story itself is far from young adult. Although I'm sure some older teens would able to handle the material Bohjalian covers, themes of self-mutilation, prostitution, drug use, and homelessness place this novel firmly in the adult category.

Bonus for poetry lovers? Emily Shepard just so happens to be a lover of all things Emily Dickinson, so lines of poetry and references to Dickinson's life are sprinkled throughout the novel.

Much has been written about the novel already, although it was just released yesterday. Here are some other thoughts from around the web:


  1. I've got this one on hold right now - your review has me even more excited to read it!

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