One of my bookish goals for 2019 was to read books featuring diverse voices. One of the books I’d seen pop up on Instagram was Fruit of the Drunken Tree, Ingrid Rojas Contreras’s debut novel about two young girls in Escobar-era Colombia. Told from alternating perspectives, this story is about Chula, a seven-year-old girl from a wealthy Colombian family and Petrona, a thirteen-year-old girl from a poor family works as a maid in Chula’s home. The two voices diverge in important ways. Chula’s voice is marked with naivete and immaturity, which serves as a sharp contrast from Petrona’s voice, which is one tainted by early loss and understanding of the dangers in their world. Still, Petrona’s age does come through at important moments, specifically when she is easily manipulated by a character in the book.
I will admit this book moved very slowly for me. I didn’t feel particularly compelled to keep reading, but I wanted to finish it. I think the urge to put it down stems from the fact that I had just finished Daisy Jones & The Six, which moved very quickly and I had just completed law school, and the heavy (often sad) subject matter was a little off-putting at this point in my reading. I used to not think I was a mood reader, but lately, I feel like I might be. Still, I usually try to just power through a book because sometimes the ending makes it worth it. Here’s the thing: the ending was really powerful. I felt sadness but also hope. The ending carries an air of nostalgia. A nostalgia for decisions characters wish they could re-make, a nostalgia for family members taken too soon, and a nostalgia for realizing you’ve been taken advantage of by people you had no choice but to trust.
This book is largely about recognizing a lack of control and then trying to gain it. Petrona increasingly understands how little agency those around her have over their lives, and even when they make decisions, such decisions are often irreversible and have deadly consequences. Chula recognizes her mother is in complete control and she finds small mechanisms to find herself and gain independence.
My one qualm with this book was the some of the descriptions felt long and parts of the story seemed to drag a little long. However, there were many details that were necessary to place the reader in the world of Escobar-era Colombia, a place infiltrated with fear, intimidation, death, and kidnapping. The main storyline deals with how rampant kidnappings were in this time period and how people were pressured to engage in such conspiracies, so pressured that they had no choice but the comply. If they couldn’t comply, they faced rape, death, or other consequences exacted on their families.
The story was deeply unsettling, and it was interesting to see how fear affected the two young girls. For Chula, the Escobar presence resulted in fear that felt abstract. Chula was fearful but was also rarely in imminent danger. Petrona, by contrast, was usually directly in the crossfire of the political and drug-related fallout occurring throughout the country. She felt loss, she knew the intricacies of the different violent groups. She was the provider for her family and that led to an immense amount of pressure that makes her desperate at times to deliver. Further, while she presents years older than Chula initially, her age comes through at moments that send her on a path that has the reader screaming, “No, no, no!”
Ultimately, this is a beautifully written story about very compelling, difficult subjects. While it took me a while to get through, I’m glad I read it. I am not well-versed on the Pablo Escobar reign of terror or Colombian politics, so I enjoyed the exposure. I’ve also heard Narcos on Netflix is really good so now I’m interested to watch and learn more!
Are you reading anything good right now? Cheers to a long weekend!