“Fruit of the Drunken Tree,” a riveting new novel by talented Bay Area writer Ingrid Rojas Contreras, is a powerful and disturbing coming-of-age story set in 1990s Bogotá, Colombia about the intersecting lives of two young girls — one affluent, one poor — trying to grow up as a cyclone of escalating violence engulfs them. Kidnappings, assassinations, car bombs and the pursuit of Pablo Escobar punctuate their daily lives.
The book is ultimately a tale of emotional resilience, as these children come to terms with the frightening disintegration of civil order.
Seven-year-old Chula Santiago lives in Bogotá with her 9-year-old sister Cassandra and her mother and father, Alma and Antonio.
Inside her guarded community, Chula lives in comfort, plays with dolls and watches Mexican soap operas. But the threat of violence hovers all around. Anxiety is her constant companion. She tells us early on, “Most people we knew got kidnapped in the routine way: at the hands of guerrillas, held at ransom and then returned, or disappeared.”
Chula’s father works for an American oil company and is often away from home. Chula’s mother hires 13-year-old Petrona Sánchez as a maid. Petrona lives in abject poverty in an invasión, a slum on the outskirts of Bogotá. Her mattress rests on a dirt floor, there is no running water and food is scarce. A paramilitary group had kidnapped her father and older brothers and torched the family’s farmhouse. Petrona now provides for her mother and remaining siblings as best she can.
Narration rotates back and forth between Chula and Petrona as they absorb each new event in this dystopian world.
Living in a war zone, the girls attempt to learn the names of a bewildering array of drug lords and guerrilla groups. A confused Chula says, “…I couldn’t grasp the simplest of concepts — what was the difference between the guerrillas and the paramilitary? What was a communist? Who was each group fighting?”
When Petrona becomes involved with a young man who has joined a guerrilla group, Chula and the Santiago family are suddenly more vulnerable.
A foreboding sense of danger and death lurk on every page. As societal norms erode and the poor grow desperate, some people’s behavior become more depraved. The young girls attempt to make sense of the mayhem from their separate perspectives.
When Pablo Escobar is captured, Chula’s sister says, “We can go to the movies! We can go out wherever we want now and we won’t have to fear being blown up!” Petrona views it very differently, “People like el Patrón where I’m from.”
Rojas Contreras masterfully puts her characters amid real historical events of that tragic time. With rich and beautiful language, she deepens readers’ immersion by blending in Spanish words and phrases.
Like an Isabelle Allende or Gabriel García Márquez novel, “Fruit of the Drunken Tree” includes captivating moments of magical realism.
By the time the Santiagos flee Colombia, Chula has personally experienced many violent incidents. Not surprisingly, there is a severe psychological toll. Panic attacks increase and PTSD dominates her daily life.
The Santiagos eventually liquidate their assets and go to California. But it’s clear that no family member will be able to leave the trauma behind. Petrona has her own scars, but no such possibility of escape.
It is almost too painful to imagine children growing up in this environment, but too many did. Rojas Contreras was one of them; many of the events in this heartbreaking novel are based on her own experience.
It’s a testament to her resilience and strength that she does not seek to assign blame for the chaos; her impressive novel engenders empathy for the children who were robbed of their childhoods.
Katherine Read blogs at http://readsreading.blogspot.com
Fruit of the Drunken Tree
Written by: Ingrid Rojas Contreras
Published by: Doubleday
Note: Ingrid Rojas Contreras appears at 7 p.m. Sept. 12 at City Lights Booksellers, 261 Columbus Ave., S.F.