You know sometimes you pick up a book with a beautiful cover just because it’s beautiful and you start reading without having read anything regarding the novel, neither synopsis nor review, then you become completely and utterly absorbed in the text? This was one of those. It’s almost as though in reading Fruit of the Drunken Tree by Ingrid Rojas Contreras (also available on Overdrive) the reader too gets sucked into the story, in its thrall as to the fruit of the drunken tree. Looking now, I see that it got a lot of rave reviews last year when it came out – it either all passed me by or I’ve forgotten about it – and now I understand why.
To sum up the story, it’s a coming-of-age story featuring two female voices through which perspectives we piece together as much of the story as is possible to do, an incomplete and fragmented picture as it can only be. This incompleteness is aided in part by one of the narrators being a child of 7, Chula, when she first starts the story in Bogotá, making what sense she can of the political situation in Colombia during the last years of Pablo Escobar through news reports. She becomes absorbed by the new household worker Petrona, 13 when she first begins working for Chula’s Mamá, wanting to learn everything she can about Petrona and conjuring different myths with her older sister Cassandra to explain Petrona’s silence (e.g. “We started to think that maybe Petrona was a poet or maybe someone under a spell. I didn’t tell Cassandra that in a certain light Petrona looked to me like a statue, that when she was still and quiet the folds of her apron seemed to me to harden into the stone draperies of church saints… I came up with saint names for Petrona” (Rojas Contreras, Fruit of the Drunken Tree, c.3)). And it’s through a similar layer of myth-making and larger-than-life projections that we encounter those outside of this women’s household consisting of Chula, Cassandra, Mamá, and Petrona: Papá; the guerillas, military, paramilitary, etc.; Pablo Escobar.
There was something about Fruit of the Drunken Tree that reminded me a lot of Gabriel García Márquez’s writing. It might have been that the ever-constant presence of, not magical realism, because nothing that happened in this novel was fantastical, but rather magic in everyday lives as something that is accepted alongside religious beliefs. It was a magical reality that was conjured up, but not one that included the use of magic per se. For example, while both girls have received their first communion and been confirmed – denomination isn’t noted – there was still the belief that Petrona’s Tío Mauricio, who gives Chula a snail shell when they visit Petrona in the invasione, has strong magical powers (or is a witch): “The car was not yet in motion when she [Mamá] spoke to me through her gritted teeth, “That uncle of Petrona is a bad man. Show me. What did he give you? What did he say?”” (Rojas Contreras, Fruit of the Drunken Tree, chapter 20). And there’s something beautiful about the interplay between religion and the belief in magic and superstition.
Then there were the incredibly strong and resilient female characters, who live their lives despite everything. There were no tropes present here, no shining saintly examples of purity nor dastardly backstabbing women. I mean, there are. But they are not defined as such – what they do is not all that defines the complexity of their character, and everything is much more muddled than that. And by the end of the story, the haze brought about as though by the fruit of the drunken tree, Chula understands this. There are so many themes to talk about that I could keep going for an essay or two here, so I will stop here lest I spoil the novel for anyone. I encourage you to read it for yourself, to be sucked into the lives of these girls, these women.
And if you’ve read Fruit of the Drunken Tree and are looking for your next read, here are some suggestions:
- Of course, One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez, on the basis of the writing. Although they’re vastly different from one another, as I said above, there’s just something about Rojas Contreras’ novel that reminded me of García Márquez’s.
- Golden Child by Claire Adam (also available on Overdrive), for the impossible choices. Golden Child follows the lives of a family living in Trinidad, the mom and dad and a set of twin boys: Peter and Paul.
- The Pearl that Broke Its Shell by Nadia Hashimi (also available on Overdrive), which follows the lives of Rahima (and her sisters) and her great-great-grandmother Shekiba. The perspective goes back and forth between Rahima and Shekiba, so if you enjoy novels told from different POVs, this will be great for your next read!
- The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin (also available on Overdrive as an e-book and an e-audiobook) is a family saga of the four Gold children, who go to a fortune teller one day in their childhood that tells them their exact date of death. The fortune teller’s prophecy colours each of their lives in different ways, and I couldn’t put this book down, getting into each of the siblings’ lives as Benjamin takes us through each of their years.
The following I haven’t read, but I believe would also be good follow-ups to Fruit of the Drunken Tree: