The Grief Keeper by Alexandra Villasante
Seventeen-year-old Marisol Morales and her little sister Gabi are detainees of the United States government. They were caught crossing the U.S. border, to escape the gang violence in their country after their brother was murdered. When Marisol learns that the old family friend who had offered them refuge in America has died and they are going to be sent home, they flee. Seventeen-year-old Marisol Morales and her little sister Gabi are detainees of the United States government. They were caught crossing the U.S. border, to escape the gang violence in their country after their brother was murdered. When Marisol learns that the old family friend who had offered them refuge in America has died and they are going to be sent home, they flee.
They hitchhike, snagging a ride with an unassuming woman who agrees to drive them to New Jersey, but when Marisol wakes up in D.C. she learns the woman is actually a government agent. Indranie Patel has a proposal for Marisol: she wants Marisol to be a Grief Keeper, someone who will take another’s grief into their body. It’s a dangerous experimental study, but if Marisol agrees she and Gabi will be allowed to stay in the United States. If the experiment fails the girls will be sent home, which is a death sentence. Things become more complicated when Marisol meets Rey, the wealthy daughter of a D.C. Senator, and the girl she’s helping to heal. Marisol likes Rey’s short hair and sarcastic attitude. But she didn’t expect the connection from their shared grief to erupt into a powerful love.
Suddenly being forced from the United States isn’t just a matter of life and death, but a matter of the heart.
The title of the book was what caught my eye first, then it was the plot and I just had to preorder it and read it. And boy, this book packed its punches and hit close to home (I was going to put a disclaimer to clarify which parts did and didn’t, but then realised I was saying way more than I felt comfortable with and therefore I just want to say I haven’t experienced everything in the book, but it isn’t something far removed in some areas for me).
Being bilingual, I usually do not like much books that throw words in a different language just for the sake of (I don’t mean calling a particular item of clothing or a dish by their name in that language, we call a taco a taco. I mean the adding foreign words for the sake of making it feel exotic, and it really peeves me off when it is a story including Spanish words), so I was wary about that happening here. It also breaks the continuity for me since the switch between Spanish/English breaks as I read sometimes if there’s that gap. However, as I read this, the way it uses Spanish was right. It was the perfect way of how my brain fills in gaps of language, how it processes, it didn’t disrupt or break continuity or annoy me. Instead it just reminded me how much I still have preference for some words in Spanish or how certain words don’t really translate well one way or the other.
As for the characters and the plot, I am the older sister and have a younger sister who did some of the things Gabi did (some almost to the T. *sigh*), and Marisol felt raw, protective, real. It was also like discovering myself as I read this. Because a lot of how Marisol copes with the world and her not breaking and not falling whereas Rey does, it was exactly how I work, how you’re brought up. And the contrast I feel in the UK, Marisol was feeling in her own experience in the US. I felt seen in this book, and as if it was revealing deeper parts of what it is to be Latinx.
The concept of Grief Keeper was mesmerising in itself and Rey’s story was also very nteresting, the dynamics, the way it all worked out was delightful to read. Slow burn, slow build up, intense feelings, “translation” and cultural differences making it more interesting.
Yes, I know Marisol isn’t from Mexico, but a lot of what she experienced was familiar and I could easily fill in gaps. The book wasn’t a shock to my system or a surprise, it was just “the truth” (a sad one sometimes) but it did so in a good way. I didn’t feel like the truth was just for plot or entretainment, it felt raw, it felt like it was being written from the heart, or close to it.
Beautiful melancholic book, with good Latinx representation, a lot of pondering on grief (yes, apparently I like books that touch on grief, sorry, I do, it has always been something that interests me, something that pulls me close) and working out that grief. Great use of language and wording and all the elements that make the characters. Highly recommended.