Fruit of the Drunken Treeby Ingrid Rojas Contreras Published 31 Jul 2018
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In the vein of Isabel Allende and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, a mesmerizing debut set against the backdrop of the devastating violence of 1990's Colombia about a sheltered young girl and a teenage maid who strike an unlikely friendship that threatens to undo them both
The Santiago family lives in a gated community in Bogotá, safe from the political upheaval terrorizing the country. Seven-year-old Chula and her older sister Cassandra enjoy carefree lives thanks to this protective bubble, but the threat of kidnappings, car bombs, and assassinations hover 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 unusual behavior belies more than shyness. She is a young woman crumbling under the burden of providing for her family as the rip tide of first love pulls her in the opposite direction. As both girls' families scramble to maintain stability amidst 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 sheds light on the impossible choices women are often forced to make in the face of violence and the unexpected connections that can blossom out of desperation.
"Fruit of the Drunken Tree" Reviews
First of all I think I’m in love with the cover of this book, what gorgeous color and pop this cover has! However the seeds from the “Drunken Tree” were used in making a very dangerous drug called “burundanga” used by many criminals in Bogota. “Victims who reported being drugged with burundanga woke up with no memory of sometimes assisting in the looting of their own apartments and bank accounts, opening their wallets and handing over everything, but that’s exactly what they had done”. So strong was the fruit of the Drunken Tree!
This novel is told from two perspectives. One of a young girl, Chula, living an easy going life in a grand house outside of Bogota, Colombia. At the time of the story she is age seven with an older sister, Cassandra, age nine. The family live in a gated community because there is so much gang activity and crime outside the area. They are quite isolated and play together, go to school on a bus and only shop in the few stores near their home.
The mother and wife in the story, Senora Santiago, was herself from a poor family but married a man who worked for an oil company. He was seldom home as he had to travel a great deal for his job. Mama was constantly trying to hire a live in maid for their home but they usually only lasted a few months. She felt it was her way of helping the less fortunate by trying to hire the girls from destitute families.Petrona was the newest maid she hired and is introduced at the beginning of the story.
Petrona tells the novel from her perspective. She is a very poor girl age thirteen who is required to work to try to support her large family at home. Her mother has become somewhat ill and much is expected of Petrona. Her older brothers have already joined the guerillas with much shame brought to the family. Despite warnings from her own family and Senora Santiago she is taken in by the attentions of a drug dealer, Gorrion. In the beginning he is attentive and charming but it is soon obvious why he is interested in Petrona.
I will leave you to discover the rest of this story of how many of the wealthy in Colombia got out and began to seek asylum in other countries including the United States. “The historical timeline between 1989 and 1994 was used sequentially, but time was compressed as the emotional timeline of the book required”. Pablo Escobar and his revolutionaries were coming into power and the police were corrupt.
Sadly this isn’t the first story of a country held hostage by drug cartels or revolutionaries and it reminds me of a book I read quite some time ago titled “Waiting For Snow in Havana:Confessions of a Cuban Boy” by Carlo Eire. If you enjoyed this book you might want to look into that novel which was quite well written.
At the end the author shares the fact that most of the story is indeed based on her own and her family’s life experiences. It is a very interesting footnote to the story.
While I enjoyed this historical novel I did feel that it dragged a little in the middle and I would have enjoyed further development of characters. This is a debut novel and I look forward to more from this talented author.
I received an ARC of this novel from the publisher through Edelweiss.
via my blog: https://bookstalkerblog.wordpress.com/
"Mamá said Papá had to work far away because there were no jobs in Bogotá, but all I knew was sometimes we told Papá about things, and sometimes we didn’t."
The Santiago’s lives behind a gated community may as well be a different world entirely from where their new, thirteen year old maid Petrona comes from. Despite their differences, or perhaps because of them, Chula is drawn into a friendship with her. Where Chula and her sister Cassandra spend their days full of mischief, harassing the local ‘witch’ and letting their wild imaginations run free, Petrona’s life is spent working for her poverty striken family, consumed with fears about her brothers and sister, all too aware of the drug lords that swallow young men, seducing the poor with food, televisions (even if they don’t work), and promises of power. The threat of danger, of death is nothing for a boy to fear when compared to the present suffering and humiliation of their circumstances. A hungry belly is a beast, a desire for respect and strength is a lure used to tempt the young into a life of crime. Petrona will protect her siblings, she must, even though she must sacrifice her youth, her happiness. Even if her brother spits at her, shames her.
Kidnappings by guerrillas for ransom are a constant threat, everyone knows someone who has been kidnapped even Chula’s own sister nearly fell victim in her infancy to abduction. Chula’s Mamá extends help to that other world, similar to the place she herself hails from, by hiring young girls desperate to feed their families. She knows that not all can be trusted, however, that the ‘help’ is more often than not linked to criminal activity. Petrona surely won’t last, not with her silent ways, her fearful eyes. The sisters begin to watch her, like big game, but it’s Chula who wonders at the thoughts in Petrona’s head. Charmed by the mystery, could her silence be a ‘spell’, the youthful fancies of their minds makes for many antics through the novel, getting them into dangerous situations. The playfulness of their days makes the dreariness and shock of Petrona’s missing childhood freedoms that much more harsh. Watched over by an astute mistress, Petrona mustn’t fail, she needs every bit of her earnings to feed her family, to be the ‘head’ of the house that her brothers have failed at.
Chula’s parents are rarely together, with her father away working hard. Mamá is a beautiful woman, one every man notices, a woman with her own needs and desires. A woman who runs the house differently when ‘Because Mamá grew up in an invasion she prided herself in being openly combative, so people who pretended to be weak disgusted her.’ Both parents are wrapped up in wars and politics that Chula is too young to understand, even if she finds herself interested, longing to be as informed and clever as her father. Petrona’s existence is nothing like theirs, she lives in a home made of garabge.
The day her ‘bleeding’ came, her mother informed her she was to marry or go to work. Raised to be the little mama of the house, her life is surrounded by worn out women, broken people, those worse off driven to begging. Boys are meant to focus on an education, the girls are meant to support them with hard work. Some end up drug addicted or working for druglords, others dead. She knows she must work her fingers to the bone, be brave so the Santiagos keep her on as maid. Petrona’s family is interested in everything she has to confide about the wealth of the Santiagos from what they eat to the size of their home. Despite her promise to keep their hungry bellies fed, she knows it may not be enough to keep her little brother from the comforts that the encapotado (covered ones) can seduce him with. Violence and shame will come to her home, despite the sweat on her brow from her hard work.
The Santiagos aren’t as immune to the threat of violence as they think, and it escalates. Mamá’s burning sage to ward off evil may not be enough to keep her girls safe nor will the tall retaining walls the government built to keep the rich safe from poor people like Petrona. Car bombs, the threat of Pablo Escobar, all of it is creeping closer and closer to the rich, proving it cannot be contained, escaped. Superstitions dominate Chula and Cassandra, belief that protection from witches and all evils of the world are possible but Petrona knows of no spells to afford her protection. Petrona’s desperation leads her to the flowers of the drunken tree; a wonderful tie to the title of the novel.
Petrona’s state of despair after a loss makes her heart ripe for first love in the shape of a man named Gorrión. Is he salvation? Destruction? Her choices and entanglements lead to consequences that touch them all. Just what will a young woman do to crawl out of the slums, to attempt to conquer the pit of misery that has stolen so much from her. Where has hard work and loyalty gotten her? Two families have to find ways to survive as the extreme violence of Colombia escalates each day, but can they? Following Petrona was far more fascinating than Chula’s life, but that is the point. Chula is seduced herself by the mystery of the young maids existence. Petrona’s youth and innocence betrays her, but with limited choices how could she have done anything differently, how could have the wisdom to know what the cost will be? How could she know if she’ll be saved or find backs turned on her?
Power struggles carry the novel, not just in politics and crime but within ones own family, within the class system. What is left when you start with nothing, everyone you love is taken from you? A beaten people, forced to bend to those who have everything. A place where hero and criminals are hard to tell apart for people who are suffering and everyone slowly disappearing. What is left when you had everything and are forced to abandon your home and country? Forced to start all over again, separated from your husband, with no idea if he is dead or alive.
This is a unique novel that is a coming of age for two girls from completely different worlds. It is a story of survival, of upheaval. The novel crawls at times, but it’s interesting how everything that is happening is perceived in different ways not just between Chula and Petrona but between Chula, her sister and their mother. We don’t understand things the same way as the ‘grown ups’, certainly not the scope of danger. Nothing can return to what it once was, not even when the family is ‘together’, and Chula’s reaction to her father is genuine. I wish I could go into that more, even though it’s such a short part of the novel, it effected me as much as the horrors that occur for Petrona, but I don’t want to ruin the novel.
The ending is as it should be, it isn’t seamless. There remains a lost feeling but it works for me.
Publication Date: July 31, 2018
Set in Bogota, Colombia in the 1990s, Fruit of the Drunken Tree is an incredibly well crafted novel told mostly from the perspective of Chula, an upper middle class girl living a happy life with her older sister, mother, and father. Alternating with Chula is the perspective of Petrona, a poor girl from the Hills where Chula's mother was raised. Determined to help girls who were in that position, Chula's mother always hires poor girls to clean their house, and Petrona is the latest. Petrona's entrance into their lives sets forth a haunting turn of events, as for the first time, the turmoil of Colombia in the time of Pablo Escobar hits Chula's family. I was largely unfamiliar with Colombia during this time, and knew only passing details about Escobar, the paramilitary, and the guerrillas, but Contreras does an excellent job giving you just enough information to grasp what is happening without drowning out your emotions with facts.
Part of this is because Contreras does an incredible job of writing from the perspective of a young girl like Chula. Her naivety, fear, confusion, and courage are illustrated so well, as is her love for Petrona, the awe of a young girl fascinated with an older one. Experiencing events from the viewpoint of a child was a key reason why the events and ramifications were so well balanced. I couldn't stop reading this book, and Chula's wry and sometimes painful perspective is a key reason why.
Contreras also expertly contrasts the life of a middle class family with that of Petrona's, who is forced to work to support her family from the day she gets her period. The terrible things her family experiences, and the feeling of desperation they felt throughout were so well communicated.
This is one of the best books I've read recently, and I cannot wait to tell everyone I know to read it.
Thank you to Doubleday and NetGalley for the free advanced copy in exchange for an honest review.
This book was equal parts heart wrenching and beautiful. The writing in this book has been compared to the writing of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and I would absolutely agree with that comparison. My parents are Colombian and I have visited Colombia several times, although not recently. Her descriptions brought back so many memories for me and I was astonished by how wonderful her descriptions were. Despite my heritage, I am unfamiliar with Colombian history. I still found it easy to follow the plot even though I wasn't entirely aware of the political environment. I found that not knowing made my understanding of the events similar to that of the young main character who is a child at the time of these events. My point is that whether or not you know about the events that took place at this time, this book is easy to follow and very informative. This is an exceptional piece of literature. I can't say enough good things about this book. Just read it.
Actual Rating: 4.5 stars
Fruit of the Drunken Tree is a compelling and evocative coming-of-age story set in the violence and upheaval of 1990's Bogota Colombia. Rich with culture and metaphor, the story is told through the distinctive voices of a young girl and the teenage maid who works for her family. Woven through the narrative are strong themes of family, identity, and trauma. An impressive debut!
Chula is 7 years old when the story begins. She is stubborn and curious, but has been sheltered as much as possible by her comfortably wealthy family. She strikes up an unlikely friendship with Petrona, the new 13 year old maid. From the beginning the disparity in their lives is striking, with Petrona's family living in abject poverty. And yet, both girls face violence, political instability, and challenges in their families. They are drawn together even as their worlds become more chaotic and they are forced to make impossible decisions between allegiances.
The bulk of the narrative is told through Chula's point of view and the author does a great job of interpreting difficult events and conflicts through the eyes of a child. Chula doesn't understand everything happening around her, but we see her comprehend and internalize a great deal. It's a peek into how children might experience traumatic events and how that trauma can shape their progression into adolescence. And we see that in multiple characters.
Inspired by the author's life and including some real historical events, this was also a lesson in the realities of life and politics in Colombia that I was not fully aware of. It's beautifully told, emotionally impactful, and at times filled with trauma that is difficult to swallow. It is ultimately a hopeful story, but with serious reservations. Because not everything can be fixed and these experiences can leave permanent scars of many kinds. This is going to stick with me and I definitely recommend it. I'll be looking to see more from this debut author! Thank you to Doubleday for sending me an advance copy for review. All opinions are my own.
I received this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
Chula grows up in a wealthy Colombian family, spending her days getting into trouble with her sister and marveling at her family's graceful but mysterious maid, Petrona. This story, brought to life by the magic and anxiety of Chula's imagination, starts of as the account of a quaint and innocent school girl. However, as Colombia gets embroiled in the chaos of Pablo Escobar's nefarious dealings and the violent crime of narcotics traffickers, Chula's life seems to come apart at the seams. Even her adventurous older sister and her feminist matriarch of a mother seem unprepared for the trouble that enters their lives.
Contreras strikes a captivating balance by depicting endearing quirks of local culture while weaving in strands of the Colombian political narrative that any history junkie will recognize and enjoy following. Contreras spends equal time meticulously following a real historical timeline and deliberately smashing Colombian stereotypes. I found the beginning to be a touch slow, but as a tradeoff, each character has a deliciously complex personality. Additionally, though this is not canon, I interpreted Chula to be queer. As someone who thirsts for representation, it frustrated me to find no closure on that front, but I thought Contreras did an excellent job depicting Chula's struggles with anxiety and PTSD.
Flashing occasionally to the perspective of Petrona, whose family exists closer to the "front lines" of the drug war, Fruit of the Drunken Tree tells the story of women from varied backgrounds experiencing a similar struggle to be who their families need them to be. By the end of this novel, readers will be gripped by a dynamic story female bravery and will be touched by Chula's tender spirit that endures through it all.