Fruit of the Drunken Tree by Ingrid Rojas Contreras
Published by Anchor Books
Publication date: June 4, 2019
Genres: Book Clubs, Cultural, Debut, Fiction
Petrona used to live on a farm in Colombia, with her nine brothers and her sister. Then the paramilitary showed up, burned down their house and their fields, and took her father and her three oldest brothers. Now, she, her mother, three of her brothers and her sister live in shack in the slums of Bogotá. At 13 she is sent to work as a maid for the Santiagos, a wealthy family in a neighborhood with walls and security guards. Their two daughters, Cassandra and Chula, live a life opposite to everything Petrona has ever known. Based on the life of author Ingrid Rojas Contreras, the novel Fruit of the Drunken Tree follows these young girls through some of Colombia’s most turbulent and violent times.
Contreras splits the narrative of Fruit of the Drunken Tree between Petrona and Chula, who is only seven when the novel begins. Even at that age she already understands the distinctions between the kinds of violence that occur around her. There are government forces, the right-wing paramilitary, and the leftist guerillas. Not to mention Pablo Escobar, who terrorizes all of them. But while she is aware of what’s happening it’s because it’s happening around her, not to her. Petrona is not so fortunate. She’s the only source of income for her family and desperation pushes her in the path of dangerous people. She likes her work with the Santiagos, but watching how easily they waste all the things—food, water, electricity—that she struggles for fills her mind with questions about life’s unfairness. That, and a handsome young man, who convinces her that she can take action to make her life better, lead to disastrous consequences.
Like any novel about countries with political unrest and massive disparities between the wealthy and the poor, Fruit of the Drunken Tree, is not easy reading. Contreras highlights the surreal nature of a country like Colombia in the time of Escobar with Chula and Cassandra’s responses to what’s happening. She gives us terrible events through the eyes of children. Children who can dramatize and diminish reality. Maps of outages in Bogotá are puzzles to play with, a neighbor is a witch so they destroy her generator, they have backpacks stuffed with food in case they need to escape, but it’s perishable so it rots and they replace it every week—in front of Petrona. They are keenly aware of the danger around them and blithely ignorant of their privilege at the same time.
All of the elements in Fruit of the Drunken Tree come together to create tragedy. Chula and Petrona may be at the center of it, but Contreras replicates its effect on an entire cast of characters that ripples outward from each of them. Through them and through this period in Colombia’s history, she illuminates the plight of citizens forced to leave the country they love because it has become too dangerous to stay. It’s timely reading for all of us.