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Maya’s Notebook (HarperCollins) by best-selling Chilean storyteller Isabel Allende is wonderful. If there are cracks here and there, a bumpy sentence, a breach in a character’s credibility, then it’s not enough to reduce enjoyment of the whole.
In many ways this book is a departure for Allende. It’s a tumultuous coming-of-age story, gritty and contemporary rather than historical and with only a whiff of the magical realism readers have grown to expect from her.
This is the story of teenager Maya Vidal. When we meet her she is in hiding on the isolated Chilean archipelago of Chiloe, living with laconic but kindly septuagenarian Manuel Arias.
Maya is a mess. Abandoned by her parents, she has been brought up by her feisty grandmother Nini and her beloved Popo. After her Popo dies Maya’s life begins to spiral downwards unexpectedly. Alcohol, drugs and petty crime lead to a spell in an academy for unmanageable teenagers. But Maya is dead set on self-destruction. Running away she ends up in Las Vegas where she stumbles into a squalid life of addiction and crime.
Episodes from her time as an addict are alternated with passages about Maya’s simple, healing days on Chiloe where she works her way into the close-knit community, becoming increasingly fascinated with Manuel, his past and his link with her grandmother.
Fans of Allende will be pleased to know, while some aspects of this novel aren’t typical of her work; still her signature is all over it. It can be seen in the authenticity of the emotions, in the scraps of her own family history, in the colourful and eccentric characters, the human dynamics and in the bittersweet moments of humour.
Where it does get wobbly from time to time is in Maya’s voice. She is meant to be 19 but, in her language and sentiments, is not always convincing. Still Allende herself is 70 and to me it seems a triumph of imagination to have managed to write as credibly as she does from such a younger woman’s point of view. If she doesn’t get it right the whole time, surely we can forgive her.
Aside from that Allende isn’t showing her age. Her writing is as energetic as ever and in Maya’s Notebook she doesn’t pull her punches. This is a graphic, occasionally harrowing story of survival. There is political terror and sexual violence. But it is also a story about love, about how it can disappoint, destroy and redeem us.
The author has said her inspiration was her grandchildren who were teenagers at the time of writing. Her latest novel captures her fears for them, and, since her three stepchildren were addicts (two have died) it is hardly surprising she had a message she was desperate to deliver.
Allende does so powerfully and ultimately very beautifully.