At its core, Columbiano was a story of revenge, and how one young man navigated the world– in many ways a brand-new world– without the unyielding love and protection of his father.
I’d never heard of the book or its Australian journalist turned author, Rusty Young, so naturally, when I saw the PM from Havelock & Baker Publishing, in my Goodreads inbox in 2019, I was instantly curious. Finding out it was available through NetGalley (a site that, I soon realized, I’d been a member of since 2015, but had not used,) I was ecstatic for the opportunity. But, you know how that goes: life got busy, I found other books vying for my attention, and eventually I forgot about Columbiano until February, 2021. And though it took me much longer to get to, and basically defeated the purpose of NetGalley, I’m incredibly thankful that things worked out as they did. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have had the buddy reading experience that this turned out being.
’Why do you want to tell your story?’
‘For the same reason I’m working here: to help. People need to understand the truth in order to heal their scars.’ He touched his cheek. ‘I’m one of the lucky ones. I should be dead—the Guerrila almost killed me several times—and I went down a dark path myself.’
They say having a good companion to bounce ideas off of can make almost any book something to remember, something to ameliorate that experience. Well, if that’s true, then reading an exceptional book together should amplify those feelings even more. That was certainly the case when Carrie Chi Lough and I read Colombiano together. From the author’s impressive prologue, wherein he adequately described the circumstances behind meeting the real-life “Pedro Juan Gutierrez Gonzalez” (an alias, despite his admission that it’s mostly fiction,) to the novel’s adrenaline-laced middle, and coupled with its less than stellar resolution, Carrie and I discussed the ins and outs of this story. There wasn’t much left unsaid, and believe me, there was a LOT to talk about. Likewise, there wasn’t much cause for disagreement.
But what would that world look like, and how would he navigate his newfound independence while simultaneously learning how to grieve? And with that sense of freedom comes great responsibility— an obligation that no fifteen year old should ever have to bear.
Earnestly, Young’s novel was much more than either of us expected. The prose was deceptively simplistic, for one. Easy to read prose ordinarily isn’t a characteristic that I go for, mostly because it doesn’t really challenge me on an intellectual level, and I love a good challenge in general. Yet somehow, probably due to Pedro’s black-and-white mentality (in the early stages, at least,) Young made it work. I think the author intimately knew the strengths and flaws of his protagonist very well, and he used them to his advantage.
As a whole, Columbiano was quite intricate. It was ambitious and epic in length (spanning approximately eight hundred pages,) storytelling achievement, character development, historical significance and theme The psychological and emotional elements, though, were perhaps areas where Young excelled best. Especially the emotions. There was nothing linear or flat about them. I felt everything: love, loss, suffering, sadness, victory, deflation and so much more. The author raised the bar as far as the emotional gambit went, and everything felt like a natural progression. I never doubted or questioned the authenticity of those feelings, nor the plot itself. Nothing was contrived…until it was.
It really is a toss-up between what Carrie and I discussed– and marveled over—the most: its masterful revenge plot, complete with its ups and downs, or the full emotional display. One subject we never really broached, but should be acknowledged, was the depth of research that Rusty Young conducted. It became obvious from the beginning that the story came from a place of meticulous observations and learning. Nearly every facet felt very real and effortless, as though he lived it personally.
I did my best to feign comprehension, but really, I didn’t know what either side was fighting for. To me, the war was like the front-page headline of El Tiempo, the big-city newspaper that Papa read: although bold and important, its underlying events reached me from a great distance and only involved people I didn’t know. It wasn’t until my late childhood that I realized the war was all around me, and always had been.
The worldbuilding was impressive. I could easily visualize the structures of downtown Llorona, nearby Garbanzos, and “further south,” home to the “Peruvian Amazon and further east, the mountains and jungles of Venezuela and Brazil.” The author made the commonly misunderstood nature of narcotics trafficking, poverty, communism, and the strict structure of a terrorist regime known as the Autodefensas (also called the AUC or The United Self-Defenses of Columbia,) more common and easily understood, and in such a way that I never felt spoken down to. It didn’t come across as dumbing down, either. All of it fascinated me. In fact, reading about the country and especially the Autodefensas piqued my interest in learning even more about them.
As his military training persisted, would his everyday decisions and mentality follow suit? What would his ideas of justice and vengeance look like? Would they be one and the same, or distinctly different? How would those experiences shape him into the man he became? What did his worldview resemble?
Now, given that I’ve done nothing but praise Columbiano, you’d think it would be a five star read, an all-time favorite book, or at the very least, a favorite read of 2021. Indeed, it should have been. It could have been. In fact, up until the last twenty or so pages (94%) I would’ve called it exceptional, a beautiful work of art. To be blunt, it was damn near flawless.
Until it wasn’t. Until he took everything he’d painstakingly worked at and rendered the emotions numb. Until it went drastically from relatable and authentic to weak, unrelatable, and unoriginal. Pedro’s character arc was, at one point, one of the best I’d read in ages. Throughout his journey, he made great strides of personal growth and maturity, so it honestly saddens and baffles me why the author ended it the way he did. Instead of the outcome we got, his journey could’ve come full circle if he’d taken the time and energy to fully process the path he’d taken, to feel the impact of his actions, and live accordingly. Alas, what we got was cheap, unsatisfying, predictable and frankly, UNEARNED. Almost like the bulk of his experiences meant nothing to him. There were no consequences for the terrible things he did, and there should have been. Otherwise, how do you grow? How do you move forward? How can you made the past matter?
I LOATHE happily-ever-after endings, which is exactly what we got.
In hindsight, I want to give it the highest recommendation, to say it’s a book every serious bibliophile should own and read. If only because it sheds light on the grim realities of Columbia, cocaine trafficking, and child soldiers. I don’t say that lightly, either, due to subject matter and the clear grimdark elements.
I cannot express how much I LOVED this book, nor how certain I felt it would be one of the very best books I’ve ever read. I suppose that’s why it hurts so much. I can’t think of a single novel that has upset and disappointed me as severely as Columbiano. I don’t think I’ve ever genuinely HATED a book ending.
For those reasons, I can’t rate it higher than 3.5 stars.
We had several fishing spots along the river—some om the outer bends where fast-moving currents brought nutrients that attracted fish, others in calmer stretches behind rock formations or mossy logs. Papa’s fishing rod was a family heirloom. It had a varnished cedar reel seat, a cork grip and a shaft made of finely cut cane strips into which three sets of initials were burned: Papa’s, his father’s, and his grandfather’s. My own initials would be added on my sixteenth birthday. Until then, I’d have to content myself with a plastic hand reel…The sun sat high in the sky, its rays sparkling off the water. Papa leaned back with his elbow resting on the dinghy’s side, steeped in private thoughts. From time to time, the sun ducked behind one of the high clouds and the resulting shadow sent a shiver up my spine and made the hairs on my arms stand on end.Two hours passed like that, and I’d almost convinced myself that I’d been wrong about Papa’s mood when he finally spoke.
*Thank you again to the publisher, Havelock & Baker and to NetGalley, for the generous approval.