Chris Bohjalian is a master of depicting the small moments — the inevitable routines — that follow in the wake of a trauma. In "The Light in the Ruins," an 18-year-old girl crafts clothes for two dolls as she watches Axis warplanes fly over Tuscany. In "The Double Bind," after a young woman is assaulted, she returns to her swimming routine.
In Bohjalian's latest, "Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands," a 16-year-old girl named Emily Shepard makes her way around Vermont after a nuclear reactor melts down and blows up. Emily lies, pops Oxies, steals, has sex with truckers and takes a 9-year-old boy named Cameron under her wing as she struggles to survive and avoid authorities.
But Bohjalian somehow diffuses the drama, allowing Emily to narrate her own story in a matter-of-fact manner, describing small moments of normalcy that fill in the gaps between horrific events. At a shelter for teenagers, Emily assesses a friend's makeup: "Andrea often looked like she'd been sleeping in eyeliner — which sometimes was the case, especially when we crashed after bingeing on OxyContin. But the look kind of worked on her."
Emily's post-nuclear-holocaust journey is all the more harrowing because her parents worked at the plant and are presumed dead. Her father may have inadvertently started the chain of the events that led to the meltdown. That means the Shepards are pariahs, cursed by locals and online commentators throughout the state. After several unpleasant encounters, Emily vows to disguise her identity, at one point christening herself "Abby Bliss" while chatting with the staff of the teen shelter.
The name change doesn't seem like a major plot point, but it's a link to a past life — one in which Emily Shepard was merely a typical teenage girl who flirted with trouble at the occasional high school party, an only child who lashed out at her parents, a neophyte scholar who loved a certain 19th century poet from Amherst, Mass.
"I was calling myself Abby Bliss," Emily says, "because that was the name of one of Emily Dickinson's friends…." Bohjalian quotes Dickinson throughout "Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands," juxtaposing various crises with familiar lines that sometimes seem to mock the gravity of her situation: "I'm nobody! Who are you?/ Are you nobody, too? Then there's a pair of us — don't tell! They'd banish us, you know."
Emily must remain a nobody to avoid banishment into child protective services and a world where her true identity will bring scorn or ridicule — or, perhaps, death at the hands of an unruly mob.
The first two-thirds of the book chronicles her time "before Cameron," or BC; the last third, AC. Cameron has fled an abusive foster family, and, after meeting Emily, is determined to follow in her footsteps as a wanderer. She wonders if she should turn him in: "It was one thing for me to live like a lunatic hobo, but it was another thing for a nine-year-old kid." Instead, they become partners in survival, Emily straddling the lines between mother and sister and protector.
Her instincts to care for Cameron are admirable and at times touching, but from the outset, Emily informs us that their story of living on the streets and frequenting shelter feedings will not end well. Her resolve falters; their health suffers. Will her response be flight or fight? What should we expect from a 16-year-old whose girlhood has been cut short by catastrophe?
Emily is the heroine of "Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands," but she is not heroic. She is the star of her own story, but there are no bright lights surrounding her name. You may come to care for her, but in the end, you might be secretly glad she is not yours. She is Bohjalian's greatest accomplishment — when you turn the final page you will relish her real-ness and wonder if that twinge of disquiet will ever go away.
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Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands
Doubleday: 288 pp., $25.95