by Rina Brundu. The geographical and cultural background of the award winning novel “A Place in the World” (2013) by Cinda Crabbe MacKinnon is a country where “The drug cartels exceeded the violence of the guerrillas and bandits. Cocaine ruled, and drug lord Pablo Escobar was feared throughout the country”; a country which “has been at war with both the Marxist guerrillas and left wing paramilitary for decades, but the violence since the 70’s escalated with the drug trade”; a country in which “In 1989 President Galan was assassinated and two presidential candidates killed”; a country where coffee fincas (farms) can be easily and unexpectedly put out of business by acid rain from powerful volcanic eruptions… But it is also a country of decent and good-natured people, unspeakable beauty, and a paradise for botanists and geologists the world over who in its interior can enjoy all “maravillas” of the real jungle. This country is Colombia.
Truth be told the novel written by Crabbe MacKinnon is neither a portrait of Colombian life at the end of the last millennium nor a literary portrait of the past-grandeur of another wealthy South-American family but it is, most of all, a story about “belonging” and “destiny” as Alicia herself, the young American heroin, honestly states: “I appreciate my life. It‘s tough right now, but I love being here. The sounds, the people, the beauty, even the smells. I never had a place to belong to before… (…)… There were mornings she would wake up to the pink glow of sunrise, with the pearly mists evaporating from the trees, the cock crowing and the birds singing… Las Nubes (i.e. the coffee farm where Alicia lives) seemed to be her destiny. She was a natural here”. And destiny is also the key-element that brought her countryman and her lover Peter to meet Alicia in such a “place in the world” so far away from what anybody else would consider to be their home.
Likewise “I’ve waited… years for you” says Peter when the story reaches its climax and he can finally declare his love to the former “novia” of the young Colombian Jorge Carvallo. From a technical point of view the never-dying yet suffocated sexual tension that arises from Peter and Alicia’s “forbidden” relationship and unexpressed feelings can in fact be seen as the metaphorically extended storyline that will produce the true climax of the novel. This is so because in the long run this particular instant – in a microcosm ruled by the everlasting rhythms of nature and by the boredom of the daily routines – is the only time that will bring true change in the lives of the main characters. By saying this I want to stress the fact that Alicia and Peter’s lives did not change when they left the United States or when they chose to live in the wildest and most secluded areas of Colombia – far away from bourgeois Bogotá – which instead turned out to be their true home and the actual places “in the world” where their destiny could actually be fulfilled… Paradoxically their lives changed for good only when they decided to fully “live” their love and pay the price for so choosing, including the cruellest part: the separation of Alicia from the earthly heaven that had allowed her body and spirit to thrive and grow for all those years, Colombia itself!.
There is no doubt though that far from being a tale of a shipwrecked-soul looking for her “place in the world”, the novel written by Cinda Crabbe MacKinnon can be metaphorically read as a modern re-visitation of the old rites of death and rebirth within the Edenic and blessed backgrounds of an ideally pure and uncontaminated country. In this respect this book can also be seen as a good Bildungroman (sui-generis) worth reading and filled with many unforgettable moments of what seems to be real life experience worth sharing.
(Plot – Spoiler alert!) Alicia, a young American expat, marries Colombian Jorge Carvallo and they settle on his family’s remote coffee finca in the Andes. Educated as a biologist, she revels in the surrounding cloud-forest. However, following an idyllic year, calamities strike one after another and their marriage begins to unravel. Jorge leaves as a volcanic eruption nearly destroys the coffee crop and the threat of guerrillas and drug-lords looms; but headstrong Alicia refuses to budge and stays to salvage the coffee. A woman without a country in a man’s world, the initially naïve Alicia survives by her wit and determination. A passionate affair ensues with Peter, a rugged geologist. She also forms a tight friendship with Carmen, the barefoot woman who has worked for the Carvallo family most of her life. Despite being separated by class and nationality, these two single mothers forge a strong bond. The intricate web of events climaxes when Alicia finds herself in a life-threatening situation, ultimately forcing her to come to terms with herself and the unconventional life she has adopted.