Book review · contemporary · Young adult

Review: The Grief Keeper by Alexandra Villasante

34522727._sy475_The Grief Keeper is a contemporary story with sci-fi aspects following Marisol, a Salvadorian lesbian who fled her country for her life, together with her younger sister Gabi. To legally stay in the US, she is forced to take part in a program in which she’ll have to bear the weight of someone else’s grief, all of this while dealing with her own trauma.

I feel weird about calling this a sci-fi book. It is one, because it features technology that doesn’t exist in our reality, and it’s not like sci-fi isn’t made for commenting on current, relevant issues. It’s just that I’m used to having more layers of unreality between a sci-fi book’s reality and our own. What makes The Grief Keeper so heart-wrenching is knowing that if this technology did exist, this is exactly what would happen: less privileged people would have to bear the weight of more privileged people’s trauma.
There is a part of this book in which a character says that if this program is successful, it will “ease a lot of suffering.” Marisol’s well-being is barely considered, and if it is, it’s just to ensure that she still exists to protect the other subject, the privileged white American Rey, from her depression.

It’s a painful read, a necessary one, and yet it’s so hopeful. This is not a tragedy, even though some of the characters are forced to endure things no one should have to. The circumstances are horrible, but the relationships between the characters are the light in the darkness for them. Marisol and Gabi’s sibling bond was so well-written and layered: Marisol wants to protect her sister and her sister is what she is surviving for; Gabi loves Marisol but also wants to break free, to rebel like someone on the cusp of teenagehood would.
I also loved the romance. I didn’t know if I would, because Marisol is falling in love with the other subject, Rey, the girl whose trauma she has to re-experience over and over. This could have turned ugly really easily, and it didn’t. We see this connection build slowly, help Marisol with her internalized self-loathing about being a lesbian, help Rey in many ways the technology she didn’t consent to either could have never, and it’s beautiful. Their scenes in the last 30% of the book were everything.

There were so many ways this could have gone wrong. It could have been a “romance cures mental illness” story, and it wasn’t; it could have had an ugly power dynamic and it didn’t. There was only one thing I didn’t like, only one thing in the whole book – this book didn’t shy away from psychiatric medications’ side effects like many YA books dealing with mental illness do, but it does somewhat fall in the opposite cliché with one quote: medication turns you into a zombie. Marisol says that the medication she’s taking is working as intended, which means that she is still anxious and depressed, but has no will. While it could be that this is a sci-fi medication meant to do exactly that, the book says that Rey is taking SSRIs, and implies that her and Marisol are taking the same pills. That’s not how antidepressants are supposed to work. Maybe some people experience this as a side effect and the book meant to show that, while also implying Marisol doesn’t know she’s experiencing side effects? I don’t know. I really would have liked more clarification about this.

One of the things that meant a lot to me was how The Grief Keeper talked about bilingualism. The main character is a Spanish native speaker, and English is her second language. Across different first languages, it was interesting to see how our feelings about English were similar, and for once, it’s so great to see a main character who has gone through the same things I do with language: struggling with idioms, with figures of speech; feeling like she has to be perfect because anything less than perfection in an ESL speaker is a sign of ignorance to monolingual speakers who don’t know a word of your language; the way we both have a relationship with language that people who don’t have to be fluent into two languages can’t understand. The amount of Spanish in this book, and the way it isn’t necessarily translated every single time, made me happy.

Another thing I loved was how Marisol and Rey connected over a (fictional) TV show, and how their understanding of their own queerness was also shaped by that show. I think that fandom has an important place in many queer people’s journey of self-discovery in a way that goes deeper than pop culture references built into a story to be relatable, and I love when books reflect that.

I was also surprised by several things: a slight twist in the ending I won’t talk about for obvious reasons, and the character of Indranie. She is an Indian-American woman, and I thought that what this book did with her and the way she is complicit in Marisol’s suffering and yet not portrayed as a fully bad person was such an interesting direction to take.

My rating: ★★★★¾

content warnings: on-page suicide attempt, depressive thoughts, rape threats and threats of homophobic violence, homophobic slurs in both English and Spanish, detention, psychological abuse of a minor at the hand of a doctor, discussion of trauma and grief, and the main characters have to deal with racist and xenophobic rhetoric and with the way the US treats latinx immigrants.

3 thoughts on “Review: The Grief Keeper by Alexandra Villasante

  1. This is a beautiful review. It sounds like there are so many interesting things happening in this story. It sounds like it nailed the romance – which as you said, would have been very easy to get wrong under those parameters.

    Liked by 1 person

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