Her Grace’s rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars
Genre: literary fiction
I read it as a: hardback
Source: my own collection/BOTM
Length: 304 pp
Published by: Doubleday (31 July 2018)
In 1990s, Escobar-controlled Bogota, two girls become unlikely friends. Chula Santiago, the seven year old daughter of relatively wealthy parents, is sheltered and spoiled. Petrona is the 13 year old maid Chula’s mother hires, a girl from the guerilla-occupied slums. At first, Chula and her older sister, Cassandra, think Petrona is very shy since she hardly speaks. Chula makes it a game to count how many syllables Petrona says in a day. However, as the girls grow closer and become friends, it is clear that there is much more to Petrona than Chula first thought. She has traumas in her past which inform her present and future actions. Chula herself becomes traumatized by her surroundings, particularly after seeing a bombing on the news and then surviving a guerilla attack when her family visits her grandmother. When Petrona becomes entangled with people and events that are more than she bargained for, it leads her to take drastic actions which could completely unravel her life as well as Chula’s.
I honestly didn’t love this book. I had wanted to, but it just never really clicked with me. I enjoyed the bits that felt like magical realism, but in general I felt the narration and changing between Chula’s and Petrona’s points of view was disjointed. I also thought Chula had a vocabulary and manner of speaking which is much older than what a seven year old would use. Yes, I know she is an observant child and intelligent. My daughter is highly intelligent, and she still doesn’t speak like an adult does. I found that hard to buy and it drew me out of the story because it was jarring.
The settings were all vividly described, which I liked. I can’t imagine living in a slum, or being considered rich because I have running water and electricity. That really makes me think about how spoiled we are in this country. I mean, I knew that we’re basically a bunch of spoiled assholes here anyway, but this was one of those books that helped drive that point home. Colombia sounds like a gorgeous country, and the episode of Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown show it as such as well. With good food! But whether I will ever make it there for a visit is pretty unlikely.
I found it interesting that this was also an autofiction book, based in part on the author’s real life experiences growing up as a child in Escobar’s Colombia.
None of the things I liked about the book were enough to make me genuinely like the whole thing, though, unfortunately. I’d recommend it to people who really want to know about near-kidnappings or are really keen to read up on Colombian society, but for me, I think there are better books out there that would give me the same things.