books, reviews

Book review: Maya’s Notebook – Isabel Allende

Isabel Allende has written dozens of books, both autobiographical and fiction – mostly historical with a touch of magic realism. Maya’s Notebook is different. 

It deals with addiction, loss, first love, homelessness, desperation and renewal. While Allende has covered some of these themes, this book has a modern setting and takes place mostly on a island  (and in flashback) at the bottom of Chile – the author’s home country. 

When Allende has previously written about Chile it has been through a historical lens long before her cousin was president and her father, a politician, disappeared. Her other contemporary novels are mostly set in her adopted home of California, USA. 

Maya was raised by her beloved grandparents in a brightly coloured house in Berkeley, near San Francisco. After a family tradition the teenager begins to spiral out of control. 

The story is told mostly in flashbacks of Maya’s downward trend interspersed with her stay on a tiny island to recover. 

Wanted by the FBI, gangsters and bent coppers, her family have sent her to stay hidden with a family friend. The island and its inhabitants help her heal and deal with the past, while she also begins to uncover some of the secrets of her own family. 

Allende writes in Spanish, despite speaking English as well but the translation is smooth and the author’s distinctive style comes through. It’s a beautifully well written, compelling story and Maya is a thoroughly created character and quite the narrator. 

Perhaps because it’s her diary and there’s no audience she is honest and there are moments that shock and send a shiver through you of the terrible things Maya’s been through. 

I loved the supporting cast as well, from her slightly crazy grandmother and her Criminals Club, to the islanders with whom Maya finds a second home. 

I wouldn’t say this is Allende’s best book (that’s probably The House of the Spirits) but it’s a good read and certainly deals with some tough issues.