Rojas Contreras’s first novel, inspired by personal experiences, is dense in plot and emotion as it chronicles its young female protagonists’ perseverance and instincts during present danger and the aftermath of surviving.
The disparate lives of a sheltered, carefree girl and her family’s poor, teenage maid entangle amidst a climate of drug-saturated political terror, thrusting them together and tearing them apart then leaving them to reconcile their friendship and the trauma they faced. Ingrid Rojas Contreras’s first novel, inspired by personal experiences, is dense in plot and emotion as it chronicles its young female protagonists’ perseverance and instincts during present danger and the aftermath of surviving.
In Fruit of the Drunken Tree, the seemingly omniscient drug lord Pablo Escobar sits at the center of Colombia’s civil unrest, but he’s just a villainous name in the news to Chula Santiago within the walls of her gated neighborhood. Her mother hires Petrona as domestic help, and, enamored by her mysteriousness, Chula befriends her. Militaristic violence encroaches on the Santiagos’ community in nearby bombings, ambush attacks, the assassination of a popular presidential candidate and guerrillas abducting and demanding ransom for the family’s patriarch. Forces already occupying Petrona’s hometown in the slums pull her brothers away under the deceptive lure of work for “dirty” money and leave her grappling with familial responsibility and a sense of normalcy with her first love, who she realizes too late is a guerilla member.
Initially seeking comfort and camaraderie in each other through coded, clandestine conversations in person and over the phone, Chula and Petrona clash in a mission the latter is blackmailed into carrying out. In the midst of chaos, Petrona makes a defiant choice that changes them beyond their final moment together, even as Chula adjusts to life as a refugee in the United States years later, hoping for her father’s release and watching her sister and mother erase Petrona from their memories.
Contreras’s novel paints a portrait of trauma, survival and the lengths people will go through to cope. Often, her characters turn to cultural traditions, superstitions and philosophies to deal with what’s happening. Aloe hangs in the Santiagos’ home to absorb “bad energy.” Chula, her sister and friends search for the earthly resting place of the “Souls of Purgatory” for answers. Petrona clings to “pride” in doing “honest” work, which her late father instilled in her, until the pressure to help her remaining family grows too heavy. Chula mythologizes Escobar as a “boogeyman” of sorts puppeteering the turmoil she reads and hears about in the news and witnesses herself.
The author emphasizes, though, that there’s no easy fix in dealing with a past of violence. Chula’s father returns as a shell of his former self. Now 15 and the same age as Petrona was when they last saw each other, Chula breaks her self-imposed, guilt-ridden silence to reconnect with the young woman but only receives a photograph of her with her infant son and former love. As Petrona says in the final line, “sometimes the less you know the more you live” — a conclusive, narrative end that alludes to her and Chula’s enduring internal battles.
The titular “Drunken Tree” growing in the Santiagos’ garden is many things: a status symbol distinguishing them in their neighborhood; a bearer of poisonous fruit that Petrona eats to forget her troubles and is later drugged with when the guerrillas mete out a violating punishment for her defiance; as well as metaphors of evil’s seductive nature and the defense mechanisms one assumes in the face of adversity. This kind of symbolism resonates alongside a heartfelt account of pain and compassion throughout this author’s impactful debut work. Admittedly, it’s confusing trying to track the political machinations the story is set in, and some sections are heavy and feel longer than they are. However, readers will want to finish Drunken Tree because of how it excavates humanity mired in tragedy and depicts how bonds between friends offer strength and last beyond severed ties. It’s clear that Contreras has poured her soul into writing this novel not just for herself or her audience, but in honor of those touched by Escobar’s terror. It’s a wonder what she might tackle in her next literary efforts.