The Gremlin’s Library: The Grief Keeper by Alexandra Villasante

TW: This book deals explicitly with homophobic violence, which I’ll be discussing below.

Damn. Damn, this book wrecked me. I read The Grief Keeper as the group book for Latinx Book Bingo, and I knew it was gonna be hard, but it just. It came right for my neck.

The Grief Keeper follow two Salvadoran sisters as they cross the American border, claiming status as refugees from gang violence. When it turns out the woman sponsoring them has died, though, their refugee claim is about to be denied when a woman appears and offers Marisol a job – and safety for both of them. The job is to be an experiment – a ‘grief keeper’ for soldiers, to help them recover from PTSD.

Initially, I was wary of the book’s premise. Surely there was no way a 17-year-old Latina girl taking on the pain of white people could be written without being horrendously racist? As it turns out, there is – but only an #OwnVoices writer could ever hope to get it right. Because it is racist. Marisol’s role – to soothe and ease the feelings of much-more-important white people at the expense of her own mental health – is at its heart immoral, even more so that she’s practically coerced into it with the promise of citizenship and safety. The deliberate commentary gets even more pointed when Marisol’s main ‘patient’ is revealed; a young white girl called Rey, who first needs to be convinced to participate at all. Rey has no idea that the grief transference is one way; she thinks that she and Marisol are benefiting equally, and it becomes ever harder to bring this up as Rey and Marisol fall in love.

Admittedly, Rey was probably my least favourite part of this book – for no fault of her own, but simply that her ignorance felt overwhelming at points. She’s definitely suffering, and I identified a lot with her depression and PTSD especially early on – that said, I couldn’t quite wrap my head around the seemingly-instant connection between her and Marisol. The part that really hit me was the reveal of what exactly happened in El Salvador; the sheer brutality of the violence that Marisol faced for being a lesbian rang all too true and contrasted so heavily with the calmness of her surroundings in the present day that it resonated that much more.

I highly recommend this book, but I also feel like this is an excellent example of why trigger warnings are so important in books; for those who have experienced direct homophobic violence, this may not be a safe read. So please tread carefully!

The Grief Keeper is available through Barnes and Noble and Book Depository! 

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