Fruit of the Drunken Tree  – ★★★
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.