“[Life] is a space full of agreeable and disagreeable surprises,” Pablo Escobar said in an interview in the late 1990s. In Fruit of the Drunken Tree, Chula Santiago and her family’s maid, Petrona, slowly build a friendship fraught with both types of surprises. Told with suspense and mystical lyricism in the vein of Gabriel García Márquez and Isabel Allende, this debut novel by Ingrid Rojas Contreras stings and heals, like salt on a wound.
To support her large family, teenage Petrona is sent by her mother from the Hills into Bogotá, Colombia. Meanwhile, feeling guilty over her own wealth and desperate for a confidante, young Chula obsesses over the mysterious Petrona. Each girl must make a choice: Lured by money and first love, Petrona must decide between the Santiagos and the guerillas; Chula must decide between her family and Petrona.
Chapters narrated by Chula are full of sensations. Imbued with a mix of Catholicism and her mother’s indigenous beliefs, the plot moves along dreamily as Chula witnesses traumatic events through a child’s lens. She calls on the cows in her courtyard to protect her. She calms herself by counting fly parts and the syllables Petrona speaks. She searches for the Blessed Souls of Purgatory, of whom she believes Petrona is a representative. Alternate chapters narrated by Petrona are more straightforward and action-based, giving the novel a robust balance of fantasy and realism.
The novel climaxes as politics become personal. Police all over South America search for Escobar as tragedy descends on the Santiago family. Rain finally appears after a historic drought, mimicking the story’s deluge of Chula’s vivid impressions. Safety and calamity collide. Contreras deftly brings the novel to a calm closing, with the Santiago women in Los Angeles and Petrona back in the Hills. Escape becomes a way of life for the two young women, providing a colorful perspective on a tragic existence.