Maya’s Notebook by Isabel Allende

First published 2013 by HarperCollins

maya's notebook

Here was a book with both my daughters’ names on the front cover so I had to read it. And Isabel partly got her name from Ms Allende.

I first heard of her when I was in Cuzco Peru almost 20 years ago, when a fellow traveller passed on one of her books to me – Eva Luna. And through that book I made a new friend Arturo, when he spotted me with it in the main square and struck up a conversation. Over the years I have read quite a few of her books (12 when I counted), some in Spanish, others translated over to English, but I had not done so for several years.

One thing I like about some of the Latin American writers is the way they are a law unto themselves. We westerners are so bound by rules such as “show don’t tell”, but Allende threw it away years ago and has so far managed to get away with it. Another rule we have is “stick to a genre”; Latin Americans say bugger that and go and invent their own!

Maya’s Notebook has less of the magical realism of her other works although as usual Allende includes the spiritual realm in the form of a dead step-grandfather. The tale is of a young woman who has gone off the rails following his death. The book begins when Maya has arrived on a small island off Chiloe’s Isla Grande in order to hide out from criminals she has become entangled with – she has been sent to stay with an old friend of her Chilean grandmother. I have always loved this kind of scenario, protagonist arrives in small out-of-the-way place and starts again; in NaNoWriMo last year I began one such book set in Marree SA.

The only snag with this kind of story is filling enough pages to make a whole book, and Allende has opted to include a little too much backstory than I thought was needed. I also found that as Maya’s tale of woe unfolded that it did not ring true – her descent into hell was so quick it seemed forced, and her recovery too rapid, her feelings for the young man she meets too pure for what she has been through; in real life she would have been bigger mess. In other words, the helpful and wise Maya of the island was not fucked up enough.

The island and its people really came alive for me, more so than the other places portrayed in the book, although having been in the area probably helped. Ever since 1998 I have nursed a fantasy of living there for six months over the winter and just writing! I would like to know how long Allende spent there so I can work out how much jealousy to feel!


With Antonio early 1998

She does not gloss over the region’s problems, and I wonder if the average Chilote who reads it is groaning, “Traucos again! Are we ever going to move on from this!” And no Allende novel set in contemporary Chile is complete without an exhumation and re-assassination of her Uncle Salvador.

And then there were the witches. When I consider how much coverage they were given in the articles and reviews that appeared when the book did, I was surprised how insignificant their presence was in the story. One guy Tim Graham, writing for Good Reading magazine devoted one third of his article to the topic, although I suspect that was so he could diss the spirituality “practised by mainstream America, with its austere Puritan origins and neglect of the natural world.” [This last bit tempts me hit this fellow over the head with a Bible as he has obviously not looked at it lately! This guy might also be interested to see where the ideas for some of the most memorable happenings in One Hundred Years of Solitude (by Gabriel Garcia Marquez) came from].

Allende herself says “I find that most religions exclude people, enforce rules, cultivate fear, ignorance and guilt. And they give too much power to those in charge and put women down. That’s not the same with women’s spiritual circles.” This women’s circle idea was obviously something close to Allende’s heart, but I cannot recall one of the witch’s names or whether Maya had a conversation with any of them (maybe I’ll check!). I also did not consider what these women were doing as witchcraft anyway, other words would have described it better (a healing session?). Who knows.

While it was nice of these women to invite Maya along, it seemed more of a ploy for Allende to peddle her New Age philosophy. [Imagine what the critics would say if some character decided to go to Bible study and the people in the group weren’t rapists!].

But I do like how Isabel isn’t afraid to put herself in the book, and I have sometimes struggled with book ideas because of fear that it’s too much like my own life. For example, when I wanted to write something set in Bolivia I could have only written it from the perspective of an Australian who has gone there; Isabel Allende gives me permission to not care about this!


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