Rojas Contreras’ coming-of-age story mixes fact and fiction for explosive results.
The Colombia-born, Bay Area author weaves a powerful narrative of sisterhood in the times of Pablo Escobar’s Colombia.
Secrets, betrayals, and conspiracy set the scene in Ingrid Rojas Contreras’ explosive debut novel, Fruit of the Drunken Tree. Set mostly in Colombia, the Colombian-born, Bay Area author’s coming-of-age immigrant story welds historical fact with fictional characters. While drug trafficker Pablo Escobar and political corruption loom large, Contreras displays a sure, balanced hand to tell the personal stories of primary protagonist Chula and Petrona, the privileged family’s “hired girl.”
“Ours was a kingdom of women, with Mamá at the head,” writes Contreras in the voice of Chula, about her life in a gated community in Bogotá, Colombia. Indeed, Chula’s mother blends together commanding strength, unbounded sexuality, and fierce maternal protectiveness, arising from her upbringing in a Colombian slum. Petrona is similarly layered. Just 13 years old and forced by poverty to seek work to support her family, she is wise about girls and women, yet foolish about boys mistakenly and violently acting like miniature male overlords. Chula’s older sister, Cassandra, creates a tight bond between the sisters that fills the void of their absent father, whose work for an oil company keeps him away for weeks at a time.
Although the plotlines, especially in the final chapters, become unbelievable and cliché, the book’s pace rarely falters. Contreras displays the same urgent and assured style of her essays and short stories that have appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Guernica, Huffington Post, and others.
Passages from the narrative capture her talent. One example has Chula falling asleep, the weight of her mother’s hand on her chest, providing comfort. She imagines her mother’s veins rising like branches, becoming waves in a green sea where a lost ship bobs and sharks display their white bellies while their “lips curved down in sadness and parted to mutter incomprehensible things.” Add Fruit of the Drunken Tree to your summer reading list, as it is a sure sign of a young writer with good things to come.
Fruit of the Drunken Tree by Ingrid Rojas Contreras (Doubleday, 2018, 320 pp., $26.95).
This report was originally published in our sister publication, the East Bay Monthly.