Born to American parents working in the diplomatic service, Alicia Collier had never felt sufficiently settled in any one place to call it home. The nearest she came to it was when attending high school in Bogota, Columbia, and, when she was required to move back to the US, to university in Virginia, she fell for the only Latino around, Jorge Carvallo. At the first opportunity, Alicia rushed back to Columbia, believing Jorge’s vague promise of a job in tropical biology at Bogota University, only to find that no such post existed and that in Latin America women’s careers were considered not to be important. Soon, Alicia and Jorge, now married and expecting a baby, moved to the remote coffee plantation, Las Nubes, on the edge of the rainforest. At first all was well, but with volcanic ash (ceniza) suffocating the coffee plants and family profitability and the strain of parenthood, Jorge started to feel restless, wanting to do a Che Guevera on his motorbike, whereas Alicia couldn’t bear to leave the coffee plantation, because at last she’d found somewhere she belonged.
The story arc for A Place in the World is straightforward, albeit understated against a backdrop of volcanic eruptions, bandits, narcos, wild animals and, above all, the ever present danger of getting lost in the rainforest. Many things might have happened yet didn’t. This is a very honest novel, which seeks to chronicle a young woman’s battle with old fashioned social attitudes and male waywardness, her battle to keep the plantation going, against the elements and accepted ways of working which went against what she understood about ecology. The author, who is herself an American environmental scientist, did not go in for hype or thrills. Viewed negatively, you could say that this is a story about an American woman who came to sort out the backward Latinos, but this would have to be balanced against Alicia’s love of all things South American and her accepting attitude towards the indigenous people.
I was persuaded to download A Place in the World after reading about it on Hilary Custance Green’s blog, Green Writing Room, at a time when I was feeling somewhat fragile because my own son had just departed for several months in Ecuador and that part of the world generally. I suppose I was seeking out a ‘feel’ of Latin America and I certainly got it, the terrain, the climate, the people and the attitudes. He is still there and to the right are a couple of photos of what it is like in the rainforest further south, beyond a town called Pulo.
On another topic, an article in the Daily Telegraph yesterday (Monday, 21 April 2015) about writers confirmed my worst fears. According to a study carried out Queen Mary College, University of London, only ten per cent of writers are able to live on their writing alone and seventeen per cent of us earn nothing at all. Do read the article.