Originally published June 2014
I always learn something new when I pick up a Chris Bohjalian book.
In the case of his latest, “Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands” it was the term “bitchcakes.”
I found it endearing that Bohjalian thanked his teenage daughter Grace in his author’s note, as when I read the passage in which the 17-year-old protagonist talks about “going bitchcakes” I immediately thought to myself, “He either has spent a lot of time with his teenager or he sent her into the world of homeless teens for some undercover intel.”
In my book lovin’ world, there’s two Chris Bohjalians. There’s Domestic Chris, author of fantastic novels including The Double Bind, Midwives, Before You Know Kindness and The Night Strangers. Then there’s International Chris, author of sweeping wartime dramas such as Skeletons at the Feast, The Sandcastle Girls and Light in the Ruins. I love both equally. It had been a while since Domestic Chris published, and I had been waiting ever so patiently for the next set-in-the-Northeast emotional tug-of-war. “Close Your Eyes” does not disappoint.
In his latest, out July 8, Bohjalian explores the ramifications to a young girl when the nuclear power plant at which both her parents work seriously malfunctions, killing her parents and more than a dozen others, and forcing thousands of local residents to flee their homes forever, without so much as a chance to pack an overnight bag.
Lives are forever altered, but none more than Emily Shepard. To be clear, her life was not one of domestic bliss pre-accident. Emily portends to be a bit of a loner, thought I suspect what she really craves is the love and attention she didn’t get a lot of from her parents. This pre-accident Emily makes it difficult at times to empathize with post-accident Emily. Her life has been shattered, but her self-destructive behavior patterns, already set in place, may sometimes leave you thinking, “Get it together, girl.”
Emily’s anxiety goes into overdrive when she hears whispers from those around her that her dad was at fault—causing her to run, from her friends, from safety, from herself. What follows is Emily’s descent into a world no one really wants to inhabit. Homeless, selling what little you have of your soul to find a place to sleep or something to eat, and praying no one recognizes you. It’s through a connection to 9-year-old runaway Cameron that Emily finds a little bit of a reason to live—and when something goes drastically wrong. Emily finds herself running back to the one place she can never go. Home.
Bohjalian is a master when it comes to painting a portrait of emotional pain with words—and it’s often this pain that plays a central role in many of his novels. Self doubt, failure, guilt for actions outside of our control, true and honest agony—are characteristics to which Bohjalian writes as if he has some first-hand knowledge. And characteristics that are interchangeable between his domestic and international dramas. It makes for extremely compelling and engaging reading, meaning you’ll be on a beach blanket or in a hammock for the long haul. You won’t be able to put “Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands” down.