Sunday, May 5, 2013

MAYA'S NOTEBOOK by Isabel Allende

In a departure from her praiseworthy novels that are usually set in the past Allende brings us to an often frightening present not only in narrative voice but in contemporary themes as well.  The narrator is 19-year-old Maya Vidal who tells her story via the notebooks she keeps relating a coming of age marked by drugs, crime, prostitution, and the most horrific experiences imaginable.

Allende has noted that she has six grandchildren and realizes that she cannot protect them from all that young people are exposed to today, so she wrote this book for them.  Would that all young ones would heed the lessons Maya has learned.

Deserted by her mother when she was an infant Maya has been raised by her paternal grandparents, Nini, and Popo.  Through her notebook entries that shift between past and present we learn that she was  especially close to Popo, an astronomy professor who doted on the child.  He was her anchor and protector.   Devastated by Popo’s death when she is 16 Maya’s life takes a decidedly downward turn.   She begins by hanging out with the wrong kids, skipping school and experimenting with drugs.  It’s not too big a step to petty crimes.

After a drug related accident she is hospitalized and then sent to an Oregon rehabilitation facility.  We would hope this would be a turning point in her life - one for the better.  But that is not to be.  The unrepentant Maya escapes from rehab only to find herself among the least desirable population of Las Vegas and then enmeshed in the underworld.  Soon she must run not only from criminals but law enforcement as well.  Her very life is in danger.

Thanks to Nini’s intervention she finds herself on the  way to her grandmother’s native Chile and then further to a small village off the coast, Chiloe.  Once there Nini has arranged for her to live with Manuel Arias, a grumpy anthropologist.  Maya arrives as an “obelisk with hair dyed four primary colors and a nose ring.”

It is on this island where life is simple and the people kind that Maya may eventually find herself.  Allende’s descriptions of the island and Chile are glorious.  While one may have to suspend a bit of belief to see how a girl can continually get herself deeper and deeper into trouble, the message is a valid one.  And Maya is surely one of the most unforgettable characters Allende has ever created.

- Gail Cooke

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