Book Review: Maya's Notebook

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Nicky Pellegrino delves into a harrowing tale of survival that's also a story about love

Much of Isabel Allende's new novel is true to her signature style, though it includes some interesting exceptions. Photo / Supplied
Much of Isabel Allende's new novel is true to her signature style, though it includes some interesting exceptions. Photo / Supplied

Maya's Notebook by Isabel Allende
(HarperCollins)

Storytelling is not the same thing as writing, not at all. How many compelling novels have questionable prose? How many beautifully written ones are, well, dull?

Maya's Notebook 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, 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's 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. 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 Maya's time as an addict are alternated with passages about her 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 that her signature is all over this novel, even though some aspects of it aren't typical of her work. 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 the moments of bittersweet humour.

Where it does get wobbly from time to time is in Maya's voice. She's supposed to be 19, but in her language and sentiments she's 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 a much 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, but it's also a story about love, about how it can disappoint, destroy and redeem us.

Allende 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's hardly surprising she had a message she was desperate to deliver, which she does so powerfully and ultimately very beautifully.

- Herald on Sunday

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