I can already say that this will be on my list as one of my top and most impactful reads of the year (and it’s only May). I’ve not read too many books lately that can bring me to shed both happy and sad tears, as well as make me drop my jaw, and cause me to put the book down for moments so I could collect my thoughts. And although the title would suggest that ‘The Grief Keeper’ is filled with sadness, it also brings with it a bright message of love and hope.
The novel opens with seventeen-year old Marisol being interviewed in a federal border detention center, having just crossed into the U.S., after fleeing El Salvador with her younger sister Gabi, afraid for their lives after the death of their brother Pablo. She has dreamed for years for a life in the States, perfecting her English, and getting lost in the imaginary world of her favorite TV show ‘Cedar Hollow.’ When it looks like her asylum request will be denied, and a new and curious opportunity to have it granted arises, Marisol will do just about anything for her and her sister to make that happen. And that’s by becoming a ‘grief keeper.’
Debut author Alexandra Villasante has written an expertly crafted novel about the complexities of immigration, grief, sexual orientation, PTSD, depression, and, new love. There are even more nuanced topics woven in such as attitudes towards immigrants (legal and otherwise) being hired to do menial jobs in this country, our political climate, and how the LGBTQ community suffers in other countries (ie which would cause a young girl like Marisol to flee her home).
This story gives so many deep, complex topics to talk and think about but at the core there is this beautiful story about Marisol and Rey (grieving her own brother) who are discovering their relationship with each other, including Marisol who would never have been allowed to explore this part of her back in the country she has fled. Persecution of LGBTQ youth and ‘conversion by rape’ is brought into the spotlight and from this story of family and migration, I was enlightened and educated.
This is a novel about connections as well as grief, and Villasante sheds light on PTSD, and gives new meaning to the idea of taking someone else’s pain away so they don’t have to suffer. There are serious moral and ethical questions to the procedure that’s used so that Marisol will absorb Rey’s grief and pain (this actually brings quite a futuristic aspect to a very realistic story, which I really liked) and shows the extent that Marisol will go to gain entry to the U.S., and it’s heartbreaking.
I read this book and I felt so many different emotions, and the very fact that it’s able to envelope immigration criticism, discussion on sexual identity, loss, classism, plus a loving sister relationship, AND a sci-fi twist, make it a VERY special book. I think it belongs on every school and YA library shelf everywhere and I hope many people will pick it up, even if it’s initially because of the insanely gorgeous cover (thanks to Kaethe Butcher and Kelley Brady), and that they end up holding it close to their hearts.
*Trigger warnings/mentions: sexual assault, suicidal ideation, violence, bombing, PTSD
RELEASE DATE: 6.11.19