The Things We Keep, the premier novel of Ms. Julee Balko, is a story about grief, both that which we let go and that which we keep. The thread of grieving carries the story from far before we meet Serena to the final resolution of her own pain. As the reader progresses through the layers of understanding Ms. Balko reveals how grief can poison a family.
The Things We Keep begins with one of the little absurdities that follow a death in the family. Serena is swamped, as are all survivors, with the photos and tchotchkes that carried meaning for her mother. Those items now missing the memory that made them precious become part of the sea of ‘stuff’ that accompanies death.
While alive those maddening quirks of our families are concealed in pantries – they aren’t ours to deal with. After a person’s death – suddenly all those quirks become our property and our problem. When the story opened with Serena dealing with her mother’s cans of beets I immediately understood where she was.
And seriously, what do you do with 53 cans of beets?
Or, in my case, 32 loaf pans?
Death, the great equalizer, is also the great reorganizer. In the wake of death within a family, there is an inevitable reshuffling of roles, of emotions, of perceptions, and of truths.
Compounding her grief, for Serena, was the question of why? Why had there been such coldness towards her from her mother? Why had a chasm formed between them?
The loss of her mother comes with both the loss of her opportunity for resolution and a new chance for answers. Although Serena could no longer ask her mother for the reasons, death finally broke the grip of her mother’s choice to hide the truth.
The revelations tumble out as layer upon layer of false memory is peeled away. With the final exposure of the original loss which started the chain of losses throughout the family comes freedom for everyone. The heavy warping burden of grief is finally lifted and the healing of an old wound can begin.
Ms. Balko captures grief with all its facets. She portrays all of the exhausting, frustrating, maddening minefield of emotions that comprise grief, both your own and everyone else’s, with heartbreaking honesty.
The prose is clear and painfully honest. Her words were perfectly pitched for this story of difficult relations and complex family dynamics. Lines of flowery prose would have stifled the impact by dressing it in too much perfume.
As always with grief and secrets, you need to explore down to the roots before you can let go and finally heal.
The Things We Keep is, in short, a complex story told with honest simplicity.
I received an advance review copy for free, and I am leaving this review voluntarily.