Fruit of the Drunken Tree by Ingrid Rojas Contreras
Women have been secondary characters in war stories often enough that it’s jarring when when we are presented with a literary breath of fresh air like the main characters in Fruit of the Drunken Tree. But the real reason you should pick up Ingrid Rojas Contreras’ novel set in Pablo Escobar’s Colombia is not novelty, or because she’s smashing the patriarchy. Read it for the atmospheric dread and suspense that will sneak into your bones as you follow the stories of compelling characters who happen to be girls.
The book opens in the height of the drug wars in the 1980s and ’90s in Colombia. Escobar looms as a boogeyman around every corner for young Chula, except in her gated upper-middle-class neighborhood in Bogotá, where her family isn’t as wealthy as some neighbors but can afford to hire a girl to clean and do her mother’s bidding every day.
Something about the quiet (or stunned?) countenance of the girl they hire, Petrona, compels Chula. Her curiosity turns into a connection, mostly unspoken, because Petrona — barely a teen, clinging to what’s left of her family on a hillside slum over Bogotá — has secrets she cannot share and will not impose on the girl.
Along with Petrona, Chula and her older sister, Cassandra, live in the matriarchy ruled by her sassy, fierce, get-shit-done-any-way-you-have-to mother while their father, a petroleum engineer, is away working on drilling sites. The girls’ mother takes her daughters to another town for a rally for Luis Carlos Galán, who ran for the presidency in Colombia in the late 1980s. The rally marks the first of a series of traumatic events, and the start of the cloud of death casting a pall over the family and, the reader senses, all of Colombia. Chula, Cassandra and their friends are still kids, on the playground, running around the gated neighborhood at night during blackouts to spy on neighbors, but things aren’t quite right. Cassandra destroys her dolls in ways that are upsetting and unnatural to Chula. News of car-bombings, disappearances and kidnappings bookend their days. Being so close at hand, and so constant, death preoccupies their young minds daily. It turns out to be an insidious form of osmosis.
At first, money shelters Chula’s family from some of the atrocities of the cartel, the paramilitaries, and the guerrilla groups (the only thing that’s clear in this time period is that the government, of all entities, certainly is not in control). The chapters told from Petrona’s point of view, though, are a stark flip from Chula’s chapters, even with war’s specters coloring her days. In Petrona’s life in the slum, there is no class-based cushion to the war’s blows. Having a job and working in the gated neighborhood are no escape. In fact, it might be making things worse.
Like Chula and Petrona, Rojas Contreras also grew up in Escobar’s Colombia, and she acknowledges in an author’s note at the end of the novel, “Kidnapping was a reality for many Colombians … If they had not been kidnapped themselves, every Colombian knew someone who had experienced it: a friend, a family member, someone at work.” In fact, she continues, her father was once kidnapped. That is the story we are more accustomed to reading — the kidnapped man, told from his point of view — but, though it surely informed her story, Rojas Contreras has given us hers instead: The haunting story of those left wondering, and the voices of resilience that speak of death and trauma, but also of hope, heart, and life.