This was the inaugural book for #readacrossinstagram, co-sponsored by @saltwaterreads, @litonhst, and @words.between.worlds. So essentially everyone who participates in any or all of those three bookstagram-based book clubs would be reading the same book, altogether, this month. First, what a heartwarming use of technology and digital (book-related) community! And second, what an amazing book choice for us all to share and experience reading together. Honestly, this is one of the best nerdy moments that I’ve ever been a part of.
“When there’s a tempest, it comes down on all sides equally.”
As always, here is my quick plot synopsis. Cassandra and Chula live in a gated community in Bogotá, Colombia, coming of age during the height of Pablo Escobar’s reign. As kidnappings and violence abound, a close relationship begins to form between Chula and Patrona, a live-in maid from the one of the guerrilla-occupied slums surrounding the city. Both girls and their families do their best to maintain stability and survive both extreme and everyday coming-of-age moments in an increasingly unstable country. While Chula struggles to come to terms with the fear she lives with every day, Petrona finds herself in an even more dangerous, uncompromising situation. And when faced with an impossible choice, she makes decisions that spell disaster for both herself and Chula.
The inside cover of the book describes Chula as willful and Petrona as achingly hopeful…which are both among the most accurate descriptions of characters that I have ever read. Especially Petrona. I cannot top that, so I’m not even going to try. In fact, I am having a fairly difficult time getting any original thoughts onto paper about this book. It’s been days since I finished and all I’m really coming up with is how much I loved it and how much it resonated. The details of the war, the violence, the instability and how they affected each of the girls, in accordance with their own personalities, experiences, and ages, including (and especially) the cumulative effects of fear and PTSD and desperation, are developed and portrayed with a detailed finesse. And not just in the moment, but in the days, months, and years afterwards, when each woman uses whatever skills and coping mechanisms she has to deal with the trauma. It is a finesse that betrays, in a horribly insightful way, the intimate knowledge the author has had with these types of situations. In addition, the way that class issues are simultaneously addressed, as we see the story play out very differently for Chula and Petrona, and really Alma and Petrona, is interwoven so smoothly. The way that privilege can save you from many things, but nothing can completely shield you from loss and pain and fear, is a deeply and exquisitely explored theme.
As far as the writing, it was just lovely. The right mix of poetic imagery and get-down-to-it action that pulled me into the story and wouldn’t let me go. I finished this in two days. And the end…I won’t transcribe the entire last three paragraphs, because I don’t want you to read them before you’ve had the build-up over the rest of the book to prep you for it, but let me just say that it was one of the most moving-ly written close-outs that I’ve ever read. Full of heartbreak and futility, but still also with a hint of that aching hopefulness that is Petrona’s essence. I literally read the last page like four times. Also, I just want to point out how much I loved the title. The way the Drunken Tree was used to represent, at least as I saw it, the various ways people can lose their minds when faced with impossible circumstances was the perfect metaphor. Titles are something that I don’t always think I fully understand, as far as how/why they are chosen. But here, it was perfect. This novel is affecting and haunting, in a way that makes me sure that I will be thinking about these characters and their lives for a long time to come. And that’s the best thing you can ask from a story.
This book, though it centers on two characters in particular, is really a story about women in war. Old, young or somewhere in between. Rich, poor or otherwise. There is, truly, nothing that can protect you from its impact. And the fact that it’s told based, at least in part, on experiences the author herself went through as she grew up in Bogotá really only adds to the power of the story. And I cannot say enough how blown away I am with her courage in sharing these parts of her life with so many people. It’s such an important, though I’m sure painful, sharing of [lesser known] recent history. This is an absolutely phenomenal novel, both in general and when one considers that it’s a debut. One of my favorites of the year for sure.
Enjoy some of the passages that spoke to me most while I was reading:
“…I felt a growing guilt over nothing bad happening to me. The guilt bore into my skin, into my lungs…” (Explorations of guilt, especially for subtle or less-easily-explained reasons, really get me…I identify with those types of emotions strongly.)
“…the mind could do astonishing things… Maybe the astonishing thing was how much nicer the things they imagined were compared to the real suffering of their bodies.”
“When a boy is interested, always make sure you are the one to remain in power. Men will want to take power from you – that’s who they are – but don’t allow it – that’s who you are.”
“I began to see the Spirit of Holy Fear everywhere. It lived in my dreams, in the pipes that didn’t bring water to the house, in the television that showed me Pablo Escobar. It lived in the deep sound of electricity leaving our home – the sizzle static of the television, the humming of voltage through walls and floors and ceilings – ebbing, unwinding, pirouetting into silence. It lived in the quiet after the electricity was gone: the dog’s bark, a grasshopper’s song, the howling wind rustling the leaves of the Drunken Tree. It lived as some kind of imminent sense, some kind of dark wingspan that slowly advanced on our house.”
“Better to imagine the worst. At least then you could be prepared…Time was, I agreed, a space full of agreeable and disagreeable surprises.”
“It made sense to stop speaking, to say only what was necessary and nothing beyond. It was a way to survive.”
“Multiply me when necessary, make me disappear when warranted. Transform me into light when there is shadow, into a star when in the desert.”
“Once I thought that when you have nothing your life stretches toward nothing. In our farm in Boyaca, when the paras started to come, Mami instructed us to not see, to not hear. If we did it right, we would come out of it alive. We made ourselves deaf and dumb, but we still lost. The story repeated itself, and we lost some more. We had no other choice.”
“Sometimes the less you know the more you live.”