I call them the ‘there but for the grace of God’ books, and I loved them as a teenager. I loved a voyeur’s view into the world of drug and alcohol addition, a little smug that it wasn’t me, but interested in what led other teenager’s down that path. So I was primed to read the coming-of-age novel Maya’s Notebook by one of my favourite author’s Isabelle Allende (see the Review of City of the Beasts).
Maya’s Notebook starts with Maya saying goodbye to her grandmother and heading off to a remote Chilean Island to hide from her past. The story then weaves the present day storyline on Chiloe with Maya’s spiral into her sordid past as she tries to come to terms with who she is through writing her story in a notebook her Grandmother gave her. Living with the seventy year old friend of her grandmother’s, she also starts to learn of her family’s past when she tries to help the reclusive Manuel deal with his treatment at the hands of the Pinochet regime after the fall of Salvador Allende.
This is a beautifully written story with all of the traits I most admire about Isabelle Allende’s writing – there is a touch of magical realism and a hard look at the tragedies the fall of Salvador Allende’s regime brought to her own family, demonstrating this event still affects new Chilean generations. While reading it I felt this book lacked some of the real perspective of a 19 year old girl in trauma, and although the story was told by Maya it was more Maya looking at herself through her grandma’s eyes. So it was no surprise when I was reading other reviews of the book I found that Isabelle’s own grandchildren struggled with drug addiction, and she has incorporated more of herself in this book that she perhaps imagined.
While this book is suspenseful, gritty and at times quite confronting, it is all a little softened by the writing of Isabelle the grandmother. So it is not true coming of age story, nor is it a true suspense, nor is it a family history written in the magical realism genre. It is more a little of each of these. Nor is it Isabelle Allende at her best. Although Maya’s Notebook cannot be easily defined, it is a good read and hard to put down. So if your teen needs a good holiday read, this book would really fit the bill.