I’ve been meaning to read Fruit of the Drunken Tree since before it came out. It sounded like everything I would want in a novel: class struggles, complicated female narratives, captivating writing. But, I just never got around to it. Until, one fateful day halfway into spring break. I had binged all The Bachelor I could bear, and finally decided I needed to read something before my brain turned to mush. Luckily, Contreras’ debut, which was conveniently available at my local bookstore, does not disappoint.
Fruit of the Drunken Tree follows two girls whose paths briefly cross: Nine year old Chula, who spends her days daydreaming and terrorizing family and neighbors alike from her Bogotá townhouse, and thirteen year old Petrona, her nanny plucked from eternal poverty in the slums on the outskirts of the city. They meet at the height of coke-kingpin Pablo Escobar’s reign over Colombia. While the two girls are coming into their identities as women, they are also grappling with where those identities fit into their distinct socio-economic classes. But, although their identities are in constant conflict, the two girls seem to develop a strange kinship.
The best part of Contreras’ debut is her exploration of femininity. Her writing is doubtlessly fantastic, but what makes Fruit of the Drunken Tree stand out is how the author tackles female stories in a time of male-dominated conflict. Chula, her mother, and sister are present at the assassination of Luis Carlos Galán, an anti-cartel presidential candidate, and later have to grapple with the effects of (spoiler) their father’s kidnapping by a guerrilla group and their subsequent refugee status. But, while these women are only side characters in the larger narrative of Colombia in the 90s, they are the center of their own stories, which have largely gone untold.
It is clear to me that authors write best when drawing from their own experiences. Contreras herself was born and raised in Colombia. It’s a patronizing oversimplification to assume that Fruit of the the Drunken Tree is Contreras’ autobiography, but it’s impossible to believe that this story is not at least partially her own. Her website says her upcoming novel is a memoir– so I can only hope she brings the magic from Fruit of the Drunken Tree into her future stories.