Thank you to the lovely people at Doubleday Books for my copy of Fruit of the Drunken Tree by Ingrid Rojas Contreras. All thoughts and images are my own.
Title: Fruit of the Drunken Tree
Author: Ingrid Rojas Contreras
Pub date: July 31, 2018
Read if you like: stories of badass, very human women, set against a powerfully dramatic backdrop.
This is an incredibly special story. It feels like historical fiction, when in actuality this story is set only about 20 years in the past. But the experience of the women of this story: of Chula, Cassandra, of their mother, and of Petrona, is so separate from anything I’ve ever experienced, that their story feels like it must take place in another time. And that’s why I love reading – I learned an incredible amount about the violence in 1990s Colombia, a time and place I knew very little about, from this book.
In Fruit of the Drunken Tree, Rojas Contreras does a remarkable job of illustrating the realities of a revolution through a child’s eyes. Elements I had never considered, such as newspapers having to print safe driving routes, were brought to my attention. This child is smart – she keeps her eyes and ears open for news about the villain, Pablo Escobar, and his men. She worries for her new friend, Petrona, and the company she is keeping. And, very importantly, the child is female. Rojas Contreras uses this novel to elucidate the isolation of women from the men in their society in a situation such as this one. Husbands and sons disappear, whether to fight or to find work (or because someone else wished it so). As one of the characters ominously describes it, “only women survive this.”
But, in case you had forgotten, women are strong as hell. In the absence of her husband, Alma, Chula and Cassandra’s mother, keeps all of their lives afloat. She keeps the girls in school, keeps them fed, keeps the house in line. And when it becomes necessary, she gets them out of there. Chula calls her house their “kingdom of women.” She lives for her sister and her mother. The obligations women have to their sisters and the rest of their family are highlighted through the sisters of all ages that we are given to examine: Chula and Cassandra, Alma and her sisters, and Petrona and her young sister, Aurora, who she must leave at home.
A great deal of the power of this book comes through seeing this story through the eyes of a girl of only seven years of age. Elements of her life other than the revolution can seem just as terrifying: ghosts, the old woman who lives down the street, adventuring outside of the walls of their neighborhood. I loved how the high-stakes scenes are contrasted starkly with the everyday life of a child.
I loved everything about the writing, the character development, and the pacing of this novel, but there was an additional aspect that made it stand out above and beyond other novels, and that was the portrayal of a child living with panic disorder. I have suffered from anxiety for much of my life, but for many years I didn’t know what to call it. I didn’t realize my panic attacks were different from the way other people’s bodies reacted to stress. Chula goes through the same process – she experiences them multiple times before they are explained to her. Rojas Contreras powerfully describes the physical sensation of an attack – I connected with Chula on this level, recognizing what was happening to her before she did.
Interested in Fruit of the Drunken Tree? Click here to support your local indie bookstore or here to find it on Amazon.
SYNOPSIS: (AS TOLD BY THE BACK OF THE BOOK)
The Santiago family lives in a gated community in Bogotá, safe from the political upheaval terrorizing the country. Seven-year-old Chula and her old sister Cassandra enjoy carefree lives thanks to this protective bubble, but the threat of kidnappings, car bombs, and assassinations hovers just outside the neighborhood walls, where the godlike drug lord Pablo Escobar continues to elude authorities and capture the attention of the nation.
When their mother hires Petrona, a live-in-maid from the city’s guerrilla-occupied slum, Chula makes it her mission to understand Petrona’s mysterious ways. But Petrona’s odd behavior belies more than shyness. She is a young woman crumbling under the burden of providing for her family as the riptide of first love pulls her in the opposite direction. As both girls’ families scramble to maintain stability amid the rapidly escalating conflict, Petrona and Chula find themselves entangled in a web of secrecy that will force them both to choose between sacrifice and betrayal.
Inspired by the author’s own life, and told through the alternating perspectives of the willful Chula and the achingly hopeful Petrona, Fruit of the Drunken Tree contrasts two very different but inextricable coming-of-age stories. In lush prose, Rojas Contreras shed light on the impossible choices women are often forced to make in the face of violence, and on the unexpected connections that can blossom out of desperation.