The Wednesday Review: Maya’s Notebook

The Wednesday Review is my pick for the book you absolutely, positively have to read this month. They run the gamut from literary fiction to romance, but they all have something in common: beautiful language and a story that sinks its claws in and won’t let go.

I must remember this the next time I’m lamenting the state of literary fiction this year: Allende will never let me down.

Isabel Allende’s latest novel, Maya’s Notebook, is a departure for someone who typically writes historical fiction. Set in the recent past (the book opens in 2009), Maya’s been sent to the bottom of the world to hide from the mistakes she’s made: there’s a bunch of thieves and assassins after her, and the FBI and Interpol aren’t far behind them. On a tiny island off the coast of Chile, she finally comes to terms with the death of her grandfather and the grief she caused her grandmother over the past three years.

If you read some of the other reviews, there were doubts that someone as well known for her lovely, haunting prose as Allende could effectively create a 19 year old’s voice. For the most part, she succeeds. Maya is built from the start as someone who is wise beyond her years and still remains woefully ignorant. Her vocabulary is huge, her ability to elucidate far more advanced than you’d expect of a teenager, yet it works. There are moments where the narrative falters; when Maya’s describing falling in love for the first time she alternates between sounding like your typical love-struck teenager and someone much, much older and resigned to having been cheated out of some of life’s great pleasures, which feels out of place.

Like so many of her other novels, there are elements of mysticism and the supernatural, from witches to the ghost of Maya’s grandfather. Unlike her other novels, I would say Maya’s Notebook is the book that comes closest to dealing head on with the events of the 1973 coup that took the life of Allende’s cousin, President Salvador Allende. Maya’s host for her stay, Manuel, is a man tortured and sent into exile as a result of the coup; others in the village have their own stories of how Allende and later Pinochet affected their lives. The coup was what eventually sent Maya’s grandmother to Canada. It’s something no one talks about yet the ripple effect is vast and wide.

Over the course of the story, between pieces of life on the island, Maya tells us about her life before and after the death of her grandfather, or her Popo, as she called him. Life before was vibrant, full of love and excitement. There were adventures and protests, stargazing and books, books, and more books. After was a messy haze of typical adolescent outbursts, bad decisions, and a plummet into addiction, ending with a girl so desperate she’ll do just about anything for her next hit – and that’s ultimately what lands her on the island.

This book would have been easy to devour over the course of a day, with its deceptively lazy pace and hints of a dark tale, waiting to be told. You think it’ll take a while to get very far and by the time you look up, an hour has passed and you’ve sped through god knows how many pages. But after so many frickin’ months bemoaning the lack of engaging literary fiction, I chose to savor it. I parsed it out, ten pages here, twenty there, always eager to find out what new thing Maya was going to learn next about life in Chile – or about herself.

So now I know. The next time I start bitching about not having anything worth reading, I need to crack open a book by Isabel Allende.

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