Book Review: The Grief Keeper by Alexandra Villasante

Image Courtesy of Penguin Random House

*Note: An earlier version of this review first appeared in Quail Bell Magazine in 2019.

As an educator, I’m always on the lookout for fresh and exciting voices in YA. I’ve also made it a personal mission to find more diverse books to better understand students from all cultural backgrounds. The publishing industry as a whole still has a lot of work to do in order to bring more exclusivity to the reading experience, but a recently published addition has me optimistic about the future of YA. 

One of those voices is Alexandra Villasante, whom I had the pleasure of meeting in person during NCTE 2019. I had read her book from the school library prior to the event and was pleased to see that she was there signing copies of her debut YA book The Grief Keeper.

The Grief Keeper paints a contemporary narrative of the realities of immigration for teens. The novel is a brilliantly woven web of a young Salvadoran immigrant named Marisol and her younger sister Gabi as they escape from the gang violence that killed their brother. In a domino effect of events, Marisol’s attraction to another girl kicks off the string of events leading to his death. In order to secure asylum for Gabi, she agrees to participate in an experiment to be a “grief keeper”, or transferring the intense emotions of another person for herself to bare. Though the novel includes ideas based on science fiction, the nature of the primary experiment used on Marisol is a perfect metaphor for the emotional labor we force upon marginalized people; the unwanted tasks of privileged people being dumped upon immigrants’ shoulders. Overall, The Grief Keeper ​is a snapshot of the difficult choices that are given to those society brands as “illegal”. 

Many people criticize the call for more diverse voices in literature because they are convinced the stories will be formulated and forced. Villasante proves the dissenters wrong with the natural, authentic flow of Marisol’s story. Marisol’s idea of America is a picturesque, perfect life similar to sitcoms she grew up watching, but she soon finds the America she dreamed of is not the welcoming, inviting place it is portrayed to be. Villasante turns the idealistic America on its head, and though the current administration is not mentioned, it is easy to hear the sly rhetoric leaking into the voices of the doctor and caretaker in charge of Marisol. Her hope for true freedom ends up being in the very person she is tasked with curing: Rey, a girl who is still suffering from the loss of her twin brother.  

With stunning character development, Villasante creates a gorgeous story about the perseverance of love in times of strife while also refusing to water down the tougher topics. The book is a heartbreaking, yet redeeming tale destined to be a record of our reality and an enduring message of what true humanity looks like.