Debut author Julianne Pachico knows what you’re thinking when you hear the words “Colombian literature.”
“When people say ‘Colombian literature,’ ” she says, “the book that instantly comes into people’s heads is One Hundred Years of Solitude.”
Raised by expat parents in Cali, Colombia, Pachico departed at age 18 to continue her education in Oregon and England. But those formative years gave her an insider’s perspective on Gabriel García Márquez’s most famous fiction.
“It’s so interesting to me that what always seems to get mentioned is magical realism—fantastic occurrences, levitating women, scary butterflies,” she says. “To me, it’s a book about violence, and the legacy of violence, and how that carries on from generation to generation.”
The Lucky Ones—Pachico’s “unforgettable whirlwind of a debut,” according to Kirkus’ starred review—contends with the same legacy of violence, the prospect of reconciliation, and a lasting peace. It is a chimerical book, marketed as a story collection in the U.K. and a novel in the U.S. (The story “Honey Bunny” was a New Yorker fiction pick in November 2015.) One memorable chapter, “Junkie Rabbit,” is told from the point of view of a drug-addicted rabbit, but that shouldn’t relegate it to magical realism, Pachico says.
“I don’t think of my book as magical realism at all,” she says. “I’ve had people describe it as surreal to me, which I guess I would agree to.”
In linked stories spanning two decades, The Lucky Ones focuses on a group of privileged, violence-adjacent Cali schoolgirls. They are permutations of an existence set against the low thrum of constant menace.
“When she hears the word guerrilla she’ll picture a group of men dressed up in gorilla suits, roaming the jungle while carrying rifles, wearing black rubber boots with yellow bottoms, and she’ll have to choke back laughter to prevent Coca-Cola from snorting out of her nose,” Pachico writes in the opening chapter, “Lucky.”
As girls grow up (or not) and apart, the book expands, encompassing the narratives of their parents, teachers, lovers, housekeepers, and the aforementioned rabbit. They undulate between innocence and knowing, exclusion and belonging, in a way that parallels the experience of foreigners, like their former teacher, Mr. B.
In “Lemon Pie,” Mr. B is held captive by insurgents in the jungle for five years, eight months, two weeks, and five days. Infected by parasites and seemingly mad, he performs his annual Hamlet lecture for a group of leaves and sticks on the jungle floor.
At one point, he flashes back to his arrival in town, to a colleague’s caveat that Colombia is “Special like a girlfriend you know you shouldn’t be with.” He imagines a parallel reality, “a world where the green numbers on his dashboard flick to 8:38 and he drives right on by the roadblock,” Pachico writes.
Pachico says she is fascinated by “people who don’t actually know that much about what’s going on in terms of the undercurrent of political violence in their lives. Once I hit upon the idea of using the voice of a foreign teacher—someone who wasn’t really from there, never really gotten to know the country, living this hedonistic party lifestyle—I saw the parallel [with the girls],” she says. “I wanted the book to represent violence this way, because that felt authentic to me.”
In mirroring one another in this way, the characters in The Lucky Ones provide a window into Pachico’s own experience.
“My family was never directly affected by violence, in the sense of an incident,” she says. “I guess the closest thing would be that my mother received some threatening phone calls and then we had to start being escorted to school. But I think [she figured out] that was just a coworker trying to get revenge.”
Megan Labrise writes “Field Notes” and features for Kirkus Reviews.