Review: Fruit of the Drunken Tree by Ingrid Rojas Contreras

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Fruit of the Drunken Tree [2018] – ★★★

Ingrid Rojas Contreras is a Colombian writer and Fruit of the Drunken Tree is her debut book in which she tells the story of seven-year old Chula and her family living in the 1990s in Bogotá, Colombia in the shadows of the unpredictable world of Pablo Escobar and his incessant spree of violence. In Contreras’s book, two sides of Colombia come face-to-face when the relatively well-to-do family of Chula hires a live-in maid Petrona, a young girl who lives in extreme poverty on the very fringes of Colombian society. Chula tries to penetrate the mystery that is Petrona, and when she tries to guess Petrona’s secrets, the cruel world that once seemed so far away to Chula’s family comes knocking right on their door. Fruit of the Drunken Tree is an emotional story that is also very personal to the author as she tries her best to capture the world of a child living in frightening conditions. However, it is also an imperfect book whose two points of view prevent the story from reaching its full potential. Overwritten, with its weak symbolism of el Borrachero and an even weaker main characters’ connection, Fruit of the Drunken Tree may generally be said to be a book of lost opportunity.

The novel starts with Chula’s family welcoming a new maid into their house – a shy and awkward girl Petrona. Chula’s often-absent father and slightly narcissistic mother mean that the young girl spends all her days with her nine-year old sister Cassandra. Their “fun” TV-watching is often interrupted by newsreels about Pablo Escobar’s horrific exploits, including forced disappearances and kidnappings of innocent people. Chula’s focus slowly becomes Petrona – who is this girl, and does she really have a boyfriend? Chula also starts to view death differently when news of senseless murders start to mention the streets she knows: “I stared at the lap of my own dress and imagined what ceasing to exist would be like” [Contreras, 2018: 39]. The author really tries to convey that harrowing situation when young children start wrapping their heads around their own mortality and senseless violence. Then, the question arises – what steps will Petrona be willing to take to protect her own family from the worst?

The first thirty pages of the book are almost too good as Contreras contrasts powerfully the simple joys of childhood with the environment of fear that reigns outside Chula’s home. The book is very readable, and silences, in particular, play a powerful role in the story. Petrona is a reserved person who rarely smiles, and, through her silences, we can discern the apathy and helplessness she feels. She is an unfortunate product of her environment who is locked inside her ton-heavy shell of duties and responsibilities.

It feels almost blasphemous to criticise a story by a female Latin American author who tries to tackle such important themes and topics. Unfortunately, however, as Contreras’s debut progresses, it also slowly and assuredly slides downhill. The main problem is that we never really get to know Chula as a person, and her fascination, connection and relationship with Petrona remain “thin” throughout the story. It is precisely the strength of Chula and Petrona’s relationship that is needed for the story and the ending to work. Contreras’s choice to have two points of view (one of Chula and another of Petrona) is another conundrum. The two points of view mean that none are explored fully, and if Petrona is to remain “mysterious” (as nearly half of the book tries to do), why give her a voice in the first place? And if Chula is to remain as open to us as possible, why deny her a voice sometimes, with the result being we get to know so few facts about her? In comparison to Julia Alvarez’s Before We Were Free, Contreras’s book has too much unnecessary detail, and her symbolism of “the Drunken Tree” in Chula’s family’s garden will be lost to the reader, having been inserted so awkwardly. An uneven narrative where Chula speaks like an adult and like a child intermittently only adds to all the fuzziness of the narration.

Perhaps Contreras wanted so much to bring the horrors of living in the 1990s’ Bogotá to the forefront of her story, that she unjustly left Chula, her main character, almost completely in the shadows. More regrettably still, what should have been a powerful relationship between Chula and Petrona is simply not there. Fruit of the Drunken Tree is a decent debut, but there is no escaping this feeling that an opportunity was lost here to produce a work of lasting literary merit and power.

15 thoughts on “Review: Fruit of the Drunken Tree by Ingrid Rojas Contreras

  1. Great review! It’s nice to see a critical review of this book, since I’ve seen so many glowing ones. It’s a shame that the characters and the relationship between them are so weak—I would’ve thought too based on the synopsis that strong characterization would be the crux of the story.

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    1. Thank you! I feel bad criticising a book on an important topic, but I just felt it could have been so much stronger. What I often notice with debut authors is that they simply attempt too much and that is what I think happened with Contreras. Her book tells this story from this person’s point of view, and then from another person’s point of view, being part coming-of-age, part mystery somehow, part (even) thriller by the end. For such a short book, too much is attempted – like the author had little confidence that others will see her book through to the end without constant dramatization. A pity, really, since the characters and their relationships suffered.

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      1. Interesting that you’ve noticed that about debut authors—I don’t think I’ve paid enough attention to that before, but now I will! And it can definitely be frustrating to read when the novel doesn’t know what it wants to be. I was so interested in the subject matter too, but I’m going to pass on this one.

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, you gave up half-way through? I am not surprised at all because the novel does run out of steam near its one hundredth page. It started well, though, especially the first twenty-pages or so.

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  2. What a great, balanced review. I’ve been wanting to read this one for a while, and I think I’ll still check it out for the setting and its backdrop of political violence but it’s good to temper my expectations on the actual storytelling and characterization involved in the book. Perhaps Contreras’s writing will improve with time; even if this book is a bit flawed, its topics are so appealing that I think she’ll be a good author to watch for in the future.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! If you are very interested in the country and its history then it is worth reading. I hope Contreras does improve in future too – the great thing is that she is not afraid to incorporate into her stories hard-to-stomach and controversial issues and writes from her heart.

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  3. great review! i love your enthusiasm in your description , it really did motivate to read this book! thank you for sharing💞

    Follow @everythingtips for tips and recommendations if interested! It would mean a lot to me!🥺🤍

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