Characters shine in emotional story

“Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands” by Chris Bohjalian. Doubleday, 2014. $25.95.

Full disclosure: I’m a big Emily Dickinson fan, too.

Not as much as Emily Shepard, the character around whom Chris Bohjalian’s latest book revolves. I don’t, for instance, adopt the names of Dickinson’s friends, after a cataclysmic nuclear meltdown kills both her parents and destroys Emily’s world, but I do frequently take comfort from her verse.

When we first meet Emily, she’s huddled in a hovel made of frozen trash bags in Burlington, Vermont.

If there is a bigger sign that there’s been a deluge of poor life choices, I do not know it. There’s Emily — by virtue of being a teenager in a stressful situation the magnitude of which most of us can only imagine is allowed a bad decision or 20 — and her parents, who also could’ve made some better decisions, and a revolving cast of friends with various amounts of their own baggage, usually filled with bad ideas.

Bohjalian, here as in his other books, is a masterful story teller, able to walk Emily forward and backward in time without missing a beat. Never confusing, never stale, he tells an emotional story in a way that allows the humanity of his characters to shine without being overly precious or romantic. Emily is utterly believable in an inconceivable yet entirely possible situation.

Even though her choices are poor, Bohjalian sees to it that her reasoning, no matter how flawed, is evident. Her fear is palpable, as is her conquering of it. Readers long past their teenage years will recall a time when their own decision-making processes left something to be desired, leaving one with a strong aftertaste of “There but for the grace of God,” even if you’ve never set foot near a nuclear power plant.

The end of Emily’s story, while not quite the balm you may be hoping for, is satisfying in a way. One thing we frequently forget, particuarly with teenagers, is they are a resilient lot. The meltdowns in Emily’s life leave her vulnerable but she navigates them as well as can be expected. Bohjalian hits every note. His characters have depth, his story sings. It’s a book that works well for either teens or adults.