Novel that captures the heart
MAYA’S Notebook is the story of 19year-old Maya Vidal, who, after the death of her beloved Popo (grandfather), loses her way and falls into a life of crime and drugs.
After getting into some serious trouble, Nini, her grandmother, sends her far away to Chiloe, a remote island off the coast of Chile, where she is to live – safely – under the care of an old family friend, Manual. And Maya needs safety badly, as she is running not only from the police but also the FBI and Interpol as well as a group of assassins.
Maya initially hates the place. However, she finds unlikely companionship in the sleepy town and also discovers a long buried family secret, and learns about love, loyalty and herself in the process.
Isabel Allende has always written novels that tug on the heartstrings, novels that can simultaneously make you laugh and cry. Maya’s Notebook, translated from the original Spanish, is no different. Her rich depictions of Maya, grandmother Nini and the colour- ful people Maya meets pulled me in strongly. Add in a mysterious family secret, a vulnerable Maya who is, nevertheless, a survivor and you have a truly enjoyable read.
There’s sympathy for Maya, as well as empathy, because how many among us don’t know what it’s like to lose someone we love? How many of us have made bad choices? This is basically the core of Maya’s Notebook, and her journey of self-discovery and coming into her own is one that most of us can relate to.
One of Allende’s greatest strengths is her lyrical writing, with rich descriptions of people and places. Indeed, there is an almost effortless feel to her writing here, with the novel moving between Chile’s Chiloe and Berkeley and Las Vegas in the United States.
The contrast between gritty and dark Las Vegas and the peaceful, tranquil Chiloe is especially well done, and there is a smooth flow between Maya’s recent past and the present. This, as well as Allende’s portrayal of the people of Chiloe, their customs and history, make this a book that’s easy to get lost in.
One of the biggest differences between this novel and Allende’s other works is that Maya’s Notebook is set in the present instead of decades ago. This, I feel, makes Maya a much more relatable character to me in the context of her age (another departure for Allende, who usually writes from a more mature perspective) and how easily she seems to fall into a life of crime and drugs. Raised by her Nini and Popo because her parents had neglected her, Maya was extremely close to her grandparents, so it’s no surprise that Popo’s death is a catalyst to her downward spiral.
If there’s one thing about the book that can put the reader off, it’s that there are so many characters, and not all of them are fully fleshed out – some are even rather one-dimensional. They are more like passers-by in Maya’s life in Chiloe (and maybe that’s what Allende intended).
Because the book is translated, there are some sections that made me wonder how close to Allende’s original prose the translator got. This loss of nuance can be a bit jarring, but overall, the translation must be pretty good because the novel certainly captures the heart.
Maya’s Notebook is one of those books that you have to read in one sitting, and then go back over it just to appreciate all the little things that make a great story. One thing’s for sure: Allende has done a fabulous job – again.