Author: Ingrid Rojas Contreras
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pub Date: July 31, 2018 (read June 2018)
Thank you to Penguin Random House Canada for providing me with a free advanced reader copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
I’m not sure where I first heard about this book, but as soon as I found out it was historical fiction about Colombia I was super interested in reading it. I decided to include it in my June Monthly Challenge to read 3 historical novels. I was intrigued with this book because I haven’t read very much historical fiction from South America, much less anything specific to Colombia, and I saw this as a great opportunity to educate myself.
The author did grow up in Colombia and immigrated to America as a result of the violence she experienced. Fruit of the Drunken Tree tells the story of a young girl, Chula, and the relationship she builds with her maid, Petrona. The story is semi-autobiographical, which made it all the more interesting.
There are some interesting class dynamics in this novel. Chula and her sister Cassandra are growing up in Bogota, which experiences a lot of drug and gang violence relating to Pablo Escobar, the looming villain of Chula’s childhood. But Chula and Cassandra grow up in a wealthy, gated neighbourhood and are mostly separated from the violence until it starts slowly infiltrating into their daily lives.
Their father works for a large american oil firm, so he makes good money, but he is away most of the time. Their mother is constantly hiring and firing new maids and when she hires the meek Petrona, no one thinks she’ll last the month. But to their surprise, Petrona does last and Chula starts to develop a relationship with her that ultimately interrupts and changes the lives of everyone around them.
I liked, but didn’t love, this book. I learned a lot about Colombia that I didn’t know, but I did find the novel a bit slow moving and I thought it lacked explanation and balance. I say it lacked balance because it is told from the point of view of a 7 year old, wealthy girl. I know this is part of the charm of the narration, that Chula is a child and ignorant, but she didn’t really understand how different her live was from Petrona’s and I would have liked to see more narration from Petrona and what it was like to grow up poor and heavily influenced by the drug cartels. I found Petrona’s story a lot more engaging than Chula’s, but we don’t get that much from Petrona’s narration. I know the author is writing what she knows, and I think that is super important in literature and I do think she shouldn’t write too much from a perspective she doesn’t really understand. But I was more intrigued in the intricacies of Petrona’s life and the politics of the cartels against the government.
I say it lacked explanation because there’s a lot of political stuff going on in this novel, but I sometimes struggled to understand what was going on because I just didn’t have enough context. I found the author’s note at the end super helpful because I really didn’t understand what was happening in parts of this novel and it only became clear after I read the author’s note. I wasn’t really sure what was motivating Petrona or why her boyfriend was so interested in Chula.
Kidnapping was a large part of the violence perpetrated in Colombia as wealthy individuals and children were often kidnapped and held for a ransom that, if paid out, often still didn’t result in release. I thought this story was a good debut and insight into the author’s experience, but I struggled with the plot, which was a bit meandering and lacked drive. I didn’t feel like there was anything propelling this plot and I often found myself getting a bit frustrated with Chula. That said though, I think novels from the POV of children are hard to write and I often don’t love them. But I do think the author did a good job capturing how confusing it is to be 7 years old and how defining certain events can be on your life.
Fruit of the Drunken Tree will be available in stores July 31, 2018