Chris Bohjalian didn’t just dip his toes into YA fiction; he dove head first into deep waters with Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands. Emily Shepherd is a depressed teen who makes bad decisions in an already bad (actually catastrophic) situation. It helps that she is also smart, romantic (in an Emily Dickenson sort of way), and caring. I wanted to jump into the pages of this book and rescue this young woman before it was too late.
And that’s sort of the genius of this novel, it’s already too late. Emily herself tells us early on that what we’re reading is sort of a confessional. The events of the book all happened in the past. We are climbing into her unsettled, chemically unbalanced mind to remember/sort out/atone for the events that have led her to where she is now.
“And to think grown-ups thought I had a “lack of impulse control” before Reactor One blew up. I guess it was always going to be a crapshoot to see who or what melted down first.”
I’m not usually a fan of books where I feel one step removed from the action, but in this case, it works well, maybe because the events would have been too much to take chronologically or in the moment. Nuclear reactor meltdown, dead parents, homelessness, prostitution, drug use, illness. (That’s right – the nuclear reactor meltdown is only the tip of the dramatic iceberg here.) Add to all of this Emily’s guilt over Cameron, someone she believes she failed.
It could be emotionally overwhelming, but it is not because Bohjalian is a great storyteller.
He breaks the story down into many tiny chunks as Emily’s mind and memories flit from place to place. It’s a stream-of-consciousness style of writing which I love because it feels so true. Not only does my mind sometimes race a mile a minute, stopping at seemingly disconnected places, I find it especially true of teenagers. Even in the best circumstances teenagers tend to veer all over the road; in Emily’s circumstances, it makes perfect sense that she can’t stay on one part of her story for very long.
“Poacher said heroin was like “God kissing your cheek,” but I felt very small those days and wasn’t sure how I would handle something as big as God getting that close.”
Emily’s loneliness and desire for connection practically jump off of the page.
It’s impossible for me to know how this kind of writing and broken character will appeal to the actual YA target demographic, but I hope they will embrace it and come to know and appreciate such fine writing.