Book Review: The Grief Keeper by Alexandra Villasante

Reviewed by Cris Rhodes

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK:

Seventeen-year-old Marisol has always dreamed of being American, learning what Americans and the US are like from television and Mrs. Rosen, an elderly expat who had employed Marisol’s mother as a maid. When she pictured an American life for herself, she dreamed of a life like Aimee and Amber’s, the title characters of her favorite American TV show. She never pictured fleeing her home in El Salvador under threat of death and stealing across the US border as “an illegal”, but after her brother is murdered and her younger sister, Gabi’s, life is also placed in equal jeopardy, she has no choice, especially because she knows everything is her fault. If she had never fallen for the charms of a beautiful girl named Liliana, Pablo might still be alive, her mother wouldn’t be in hiding and she and Gabi wouldn’t have been caught crossing the border.

But they have been caught and their asylum request will most certainly be denied. With truly no options remaining, Marisol jumps at an unusual opportunity to stay in the United States. She’s asked to become a grief keeper, taking the grief of another into her own body to save a life. It’s a risky, experimental study, but if it means Marisol can keep her sister safe, she will risk anything. She just never imagined one of the risks would be falling in love, a love that may even be powerful enough to finally help her face her own crushing grief.

The Grief Keeper is a tender tale that explores the heartbreak and consequences of when both love and human beings are branded illegal.

MY TWO CENTS:

What first strikes me about Alexandra Villasante’s debut novel The Grief Keeper is its unique juxtaposition of science fiction, which we often don’t get to see in Latinx youth literature, and an undocumented border-crossing narrative, which is quite prevalent within the field. The combination creates a new experience for readers, one that I think we need more of. Given the predominance of immigration narratives, any innovation upon that common theme is a welcome addition. At the same time, The Grief Keeper is a difficult read. That Marisol, an undocumented asylum seeker, is abused as a test subject for a human trial no one else would volunteer for is horrifying. But, perhaps not so horrifying as the prospect that this book, though science fiction, feels very, very real insofar as it explores the dehumanization of Central American immigrants, many of them children.

Focusing on Marisol and her younger sister Gabi, who have fled their native El Salvador to escape gang violence, this book opens with Marisol’s meticulous preparations to plead her case for asylum, but there’s always the hint that Marisol is being less than truthful with the immigration officials. When Marisol’s concern that they don’t buy her story swells, she mounts her escape with Gabi, only to be picked up by the mysterious Indranie Patel, and taken to a medical facility with the offer that if Marisol participates in a clandestine medical trial, she and her family will be granted asylum. But Marisol’s participation in the trial—being implanted with a medical device that allows her to act as a surrogate for another human being’s grief—is turned on its head when she meets her counterpart: the grief-stricken Rey.

The medical trial seems an odd backdrop for what turns out to be rather moving, burgeoning romance between Marisol, whose queer identity is a point of contention in her past, and Rey. At times, I felt disconcerted by this tension. Is this a story of danger, violence, and corruption on both sides of the border? Or is this another excellent queer, Latinx love story? It’s somehow both. I’m torn about whether the levity offered through the love story undercuts the gravity of the immigration narrative. I haven’t resolved my feelings about this, to be honest. The more I think about it, I’m left feeling like the love story was out of place within a deeply serious and dark tale about homophobia, abuse, and immigration.

But, these retrospective feelings must also be seen through the lens of how much I genuinely enjoyed reading this book. It was a quick, pleasurable read. Villasante’s prose is immersive, pulling you out of your own head and putting you into Marisol’s. Further, the frank discussions of grief, depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation are unvarnished, but honest. For readers who struggle with mental health, this book may offer a distinct sort of validation and hope. But, I do caution some readers who may be struggling that this text is tough to read in certain moments. As someone who intimately understands the debilitating depression Marisol experiences, I can at once see Villasante’s accurate representation and the potential triggers it may offer.

Nevertheless, the open discussion of mental health, particularly because it’s underemphasized (to put it lightly) in many Latinx communities, is refreshing. The queer romance is necessary. And the blend of themes and genre conventions is intriguing. If you’re looking for a new kind of read, I encourage you to pick up The Grief Keeper to see for yourself its unique blend.

TEACHING TIPS:

Marisol and Rey are deeply impacted by their favorite TV show, Cedar Hollow. It would prove an interesting discussion or written activity to have students reflect on television shows or other media that have similarly impacted their lives.

This book would also be an interesting addition to teach current topics, whether in a government class, social studies class, or literature class. It might also be good to read alongside discussions of other medical experimentation—I was struck, in particular, with the connections The Grief Keeper shares with experiments done on other minoritized populations, from Native Americans to Jewish peoples during the Holocaust. Reading this text in addition to discussing those events might add depth to conversations that are often difficult, at the same time as they seem historically removed from our contemporary moment.

About the author: Alexandra Villasante holds a BFA in Painting and an MA in Combined Media. She was born in New Jersey to immigrant parents and now lives in Pennsylvania. Learn more about Alexandra’s work and appearances on her website. Her social media accounts may be found on Twitter and Instagram at @magpiewrites.

 

About the reviewer: Cris Rhodes is a regular contributor to Latinxs in KId Lit. At Texas A&M, she recently completed a Ph.D. in English with an emphasis on Latinx children’s literature. Her research explores the intersections between childhood activism and Latinx identities. In the fall, she will begin an assistant professorship at Shippensburg University.

Book Review: We Set the Dark on Fire by Tehlor Kay Mejia

 

Review by Cris Rhodes:

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: At the Medio School for Girls, distinguished young women are trained for one of two roles in their polarized society. Depending on her specialization, a graduate will one day run a husband’s household or raise his children. Both paths promise a life of comfort and luxury, far from the frequent political uprisings of the lower class.

Daniela Vargas is the school’s top student, but her pedigree is a lie. She must keep the truth hidden or be sent back to the fringes of society.

And school couldn’t prepare her for the difficult choices she must make after graduation, especially when she is asked to spy for a resistance group desperately fighting to bring equality to Medio.

Will Dani cling to the privilege her parents fought to win for her, or will she give up everything she’s strived for in pursuit of a free Medio—and a chance at a forbidden love?

MY TWO CENTS: Would it be hyperbolic to say that I’ve been waiting my whole life for a book like this? Reading We Set the Dark on Fire made me feel fifteen again, devouring every immersive fantasy book with a twist of romance that I could get my hands on. But where those books fell short in both diversity and female empowerment, We Set the Dark on Fire excels and exceeds.

Opening with a brief folkloric backstory, Tehlor Kay Mejia’s shining debut novel submerges its reader in the hierarchical world of Medio and its fraught borders. Medio’s tension with its border towns and what lies beyond its literal border wall finds roots in the mythology established at the beginning of the text: The disintegrating relationship between brother gods, both desirous of the same wife. Ultimately, the Sun God won the right to have a relationship with both an earthly queen, Constancia, and the Moon Goddess—his Primera and Segunda wives—over his brother, the Salt God. Scorned and cursed, the Salt God was banished. Mimicking this folktale, Medio’s contemporary social system is built around the upper classes having a Primera wife, who runs the household, and Segunda, for beauty and harmony. While the upper echelons superficially thrive on this model, the border and beyond—territory of the Salt God—suffers and is subjected to increasing violence.

Mejia’s worldbuilding in the first few pages of this novel are brilliant, thorough, and engaging in a way that doesn’t feel beleaguered. Though Medio’s world may seem leagues away, its tumultuous border disputes feel so grounded in our contemporary moment that readers will instantly latch onto this novel. The orders that those who would risk traversing Medio’s border wall be shot on sight seem jarring when reading the novel, but then I turn on my TV or open social media and I’m reminded, once again, of the exigency of a novel like this.

Additionally, Mejia’s masterfully and lovingly created world plays perfect backdrop to the complex relationship between new Primera wife, Dani, and Segunda wife, Carmen. Dani, an undocumented immigrant from beyond the wall, smuggled across when she was a child, has managed to stay under the radar, even through her new marriage to the most eligible and most politically well-positioned bachelor in Medio. But her passing comes at a cost: being indebted to the rebel group La Voz. As Dani performs increasingly risky tasks for La Voz, she becomes further entangled with their mission. Complicating matters is her at-first catty relationship with Carmen, but as Dani and Carmen grow more intimate, Dani’s investment in the revolution becomes all the more precarious.

We Set the Dark on Fire sets the stage for what (I hope, please Tehlor Kay Mejia, please, tell me there will be more) promises to be a robust and revolutionary universe. Carmen and Dani’s relationship, alone, is a revolutionary prospect. We are getting more and more queer Latinx books for young readers, but to see this kind of representation in a fantasy novel is just lovely and wonderful (even if the plot of the book is dark and gritty). Like I said, this is the kind of novel I would have loved as a teenager. It doesn’t overemphasize its love story, but it makes Dani’s unfolding attraction to Carmen feel organic, naturally growing from their situation and Dani’s own burgeoning self-awareness. What’s more, the attention to Dani’s growth and empowerment will resonate with young readers, seeking similar empowerment from the texts they read. Finally, Mejia’s choice to make this a Latinx story is calculated and necessary. The names, foods, and contours of Medio’s spaces bespeak Latinx culture, but Mejia is careful to not overemphasize and caricaturize. This world feels real because it’s grounded in something real. Mejia’s given us a gift in this lush, rebellious, queer, Latinx story.

All-in-all, We Set the Dark on Fire’s otherworldliness, its devotion to strong and multifaceted female Latinx characters, and its queer romance subplot make it impressive, and Mejia’s immersive prose make it lasting. To be fair, it may be a little difficult to get into because it does move slowly, building tension at the same time as the reader digs deeper into Medio’s innerworkings; even so, it’s worth the wait. For fans of Anna Marie McLemore’s books, We Set Fire to the Dark is a must-read. We’ll be talking about this book for years.

 

Tehlor Kay MejiaABOUT THE AUTHOR: Tehlor Kay Mejia is an author and Oregon native in love with the alpine meadows and evergreen forests of her home state, where she lives with her daughter. We Set the Dark on Fire is her first novel. You can follow her on Twitter @tehlorkay.

 

 

 

 

 

ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Cris Rhodes is a lecturer in the English department at Sam Houston State University. She recently completed a Ph.D. in English with an emphasis on Latinx children’s literature. Her research explores the intersections between childhood activism and Latinx identities.