Naomi Elias | Longreads | August 2018 | 16 minutes (4,372 words)
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, drug lord Pablo Escobar ruled over all of Colombia as if it were his kingdom. Escobar’s lethal combination of cleverness and ruthlessness allowed him to evade capture for years. A real-life boogeyman, his presence altered the atmosphere, layering everyday Colombian life with toxic tension: an opposition leader looking to curb the expansion of Escobar’s drug empire was assassinated, communities were terrorized by car bombings, and paramilitary recruiters transformed young boys into cold-blooded soldiers. Fear and uncertainty were normal states of mind for people who grew up in this era, people like Colombian-born writer Ingrid Rojas Contreras, who channeled her memories of this formative chapter of her life into a captivating debut novel, Fruit of the Drunken Tree.
In Fruit of the Drunken Tree, we are introduced to the Santiago family; Chula, age 7, her sister Cassandra, age 9, and their parents, who all live together in a gated community in Bogotá, Colombia. The Santiago family’s moderate wealth generally insulates them from contact with the criminal elements terrorizing the city’s lower-income neighborhoods, but this all changes when the family hires Petrona, a teenager from a poor guerilla-occupied slum, as their new maid.
At only thirteen Petrona is her family’s primary breadwinner, a burden that weighs heavily on her. Chula, enamored with the new occupant of her home, finds herself attempting to unravel the mystery that is Petrona, a girl of few words and many secrets. This curiosity eventually lands Chula in trouble — Petrona’s desperate attempts to juggle her duty to her family and her pursuit of the milestones of youth, like first love with a young guerrilla soldier, push her to engage in riskier and riskier behavior, and Chula’s deepening involvement entangles her in a violent conspiracy. Read more…