Chris Bohjalian is a chameleon. He's written a novel about midwives, a WWI love story set in Syria, and a ghost story with creepy old women, among other things. In his latest book, he creates a remarkably convincing teenage girl narrator whose life falls apart after her parents die in a nuclear plant meltdown.
I've read quite a few books in recent months that deal with nuclear power, so much so that I decided it merited its own category on this site. The more I read, the more my fascination grows. This book was a welcome addition to my canon, as it focuses not on a nuclear holocaust or nuclear war, but on the explosion of one nuclear reactor in a rural Vermont village. The tragedy may not be on a global scale and it may not have been caused by an enemy government, but the fallout (if you'll pardon the pun) is damaging enough for Emily Shepard, Bohjalian's jaded narrator.
Emily is at school when the alarm sounds. Her father is the chief engineer at the nuclear power plant, and her mother is the communications director. Neither is answering the phone. In a daze, fearful for her parents, Emily is herded onto a bus along with her classmates. She quickly realizes from the comments and stares that she needs to get away. Early news reports blame her father for the meltdown, claiming he was drunk on the job. Emotions run high and people make Emily feel responsible for whatever her father may have done.
So Emily runs—but she has nowhere to run to. Her parents are both presumed dead, and her two living grandparents are both in care homes. She has no aunts, uncles, or cousins. Her few close friends live within the contamination zone, so their houses are off-limits. Emily finds herself living on the streets, doing whatever she can to get by.
Emily's world has become apocalyptic, even if the nuclear accident was isolated and life is going on as usual for almost everyone else around her. It's hard to read about the total destruction of a teenage girl's life, and it's hard to watch her repeatedly make terrible, self-destructive choices, but Bohjalian has done an expert job channeling Emily's voice. She hasn't succumbed completely to cynicism, as she proves when she takes a nine-year-old runaway under her wing, but she makes lots of excuses for her behavior. Like many teenagers, Emily doesn't make the connection between the bad things that happen to her and her own actions.
Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands demonstrates Bohjalian's mastery of tone. If he can convincingly masquerade as a snarky, wounded teenage girl, he can become damn near anyone.
With regards to NetGalley and Doubleday for the advance copy. On sale July 8.