Amanda Cockrell’s What We Keep Is Not Always What Will Stay (Flux, June) begins with fifteen-year-old protagonist Angela Arnaz’s disclaimer, “I am not a religious fanatic.” Angie confesses she regularly talks to a statue of St. Felix—and then the statue miraculously seems to come to life and offers advice. Is grubby Felix the saint incarnate, or is he a homeless vet living in the church’s basement?
Meanwhile, Angie begins an intense relationship with Jesse, a teen veteran who has returned from Afghanistan traumatized and disabled. When Jesse’s damaged psyche proves overwhelming (and dangerous) for Angie, she makes the wrenching choice to walk away—even as Jesse self-destructs.
A smattering of supernatural-or-are-they? elements tips the novel toward magical realism, but at the forefront are its multifaceted, nuanced characters. Though Jesse is the most apparent example (and, to Angie, the most baffling one: how can he be so sweet and yet so frightening?), she begins to realize that everyone around her is complex and full of often-contradictory layers. With her confusingly mixed-up feelings, Angie herself is no exception.
This growing awareness is mirrored in the “overlapping layers of belief” Angie identifies in her southern California community, where Mexican folklore and traditions frequently blend with Catholicism. (Hear Cockrell read a passage about Dia de los Muertos; that’s today!) Her part-agnostic, part-Jewish blended family draws on their varied religious and cultural traditions to honor ancestors and the divine in ways uniquely theirs.
Many stresses and potential miracles may make Angie question her own sanity, but the reader never does. Remarkably level-headed, she approaches her parents’ impending divorce and Jesse’s increasingly erratic behavior with compassion, an open mind, and a strong sense of self. The lesson that some things (and some people) can’t be fixed is a hard one, but ultimately, Angie finds it “kind of freeing, actually.”