Translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean
Originally published in Spanish as El Cuaderno de Maya in Spain in 2011
The English translation of Isabel Allende’s Maya’s Notebook was published in 2013. Surprisingly, I found it in a bargain bin a year or so ago. It’s been sitting patiently in my TBR pile since then. (We do not discuss how quickly that pile is growing. I’m just excited to finally be back to reading. Not reading was like forgetting how to be me.) Some of you know that I have a love of so-called “multicultural” books, and Allende is one of my favorites. (The House of Spirits, Daughter of Fortune, Portrait in Sepia, and My Invented Country in particular.) Maya’s Notebook is no exception; Allende is a master story-teller and she uses words in such a brilliant way to paint some remarkable characters and settings.
The novel opens in 2009, a week after Maya’s grandmother, Nini, spirited Maya off to Chiloe in Chile. The novel is in first person, written as a journal from a broken girl whose road to recovery lies in memories – both the good and bad. The reader quickly learns that Maya has been sent to Chiloe for her own protection. Why she needs protection isn’t so readily revealed as Allende, through Maya’s journal entries, crosses spaces of time and countries seamlessly keeping the reader engaged in the 19 year old’s story without giving an abundance of backstory at a pop. What starts as a very self-absorbed tale of a 19 year old, albeit a scarred one, quickly becomes the story of a country, of a people, and of a family that cannot be bound by words. As Maya becomes more comfortable with herself and her surroundings, the entries include more details of her past.
Allende takes us from the privileged streets of Berkeley, to a beautiful rehabilitation center in Oregon where Maya is tasked with caring for vicunas. “…two slender animals with upright ears and the flirtatious eyelashes of a bride.” Maya stays with the program out of concern for the animals: “I had to postpone my escape: the vicunas needed me.” From Oregon, Maya is taken on a hitch-hiking ride to hell with a trucker from Tennessee who says grace over breakfast after drugging and raping her, using his penis and the barrel of a gun to exert his dominance. The rape is her fare, or so she learns. This passage in particular is hard to stomach. The passage left my stomach in knots and a tightness settled in my jaw when reading it. As for Maya, it took many an entry into her journal and a lot of time in Chiloe to heal, before she could reveal the heartbreaking journey that left her in the care of Brandon Leeman, a hardened drug dealer, and his cohorts in Vegas. In Sin City, Maya spiraled out of control. By the time she realized what she’d become, she’d found it too late and too embarrassing to call her Nini for rescue. When her criminal benefactor is murdered by his own men, Maya’s life of luxury is gone. Running for her life and quickly withdrawing from the ample substances he’d gotten her hooked on, Maya turns to prostitution. But Leeman’s criminal dealings and Maya’s involvement in and knowledge of them have made the streets of Vegas deadly; Maya wasn’t just another addict, she was the key to a fortune. In time, the reader learns that Maya was sent to Chiloe because of Leeman’s murder, dirty cops, and a storage facility with half a million dollars that only she knows the location of. Thanks to the heart of gold druggie, Freddy, and the Widows for Jesus, she is saved. Nini and Mike O’Kelly make the drive from California to take Maya back to rehab. She tells them of the storage unit. Mike and Nini are comically involved in a group called the Club of Criminals – this comes into play as they use their knowledge to plot Maya’s escape from the States and to destroy the money and the counterfeiting plates found in the storage unit.
Those are the events that led Maya to Chiloe, and while their action may drive the novel, the pace of the Chiloen sections, the descriptions of the people and their own skeletons (child abuse, incest, the scars of the Pinochet dictatorship and the interrogations and disappearances that marked the ’70s) give the story life. Maya learns why her grandmother was forced to leave Chile, what happened to Nini’s first husband, and why the stranger in Chiloe, who hasn’t seen her Nini in decades, was so willing to take her in like a stray dog. Maya learns who she is.
Interesting note for me: dogs are featured pretty heavily in this novel. From Daisy, the tiny pup Maya had as a little girl whose memory helps Maya get over her first heartbreak, to the dogs trained by Susan, her father’s wife, to the purebred dogs signaling social class to Fahkeen, the stray described as “a cross between German shepherd and a fox terrier” who appears on page 15 and becomes a much-adored pet who saves her life. It’s interesting what Allende does with animals in this novel – particularly the dogs.
Maya’s Notebook is a Bildungsroman, and Maya’s journey is as painful as it is beautiful. I can’t recommend Allende or this novel enough, but I will say that some passages and descriptions may be too intense for some readers. Happy reading! You’ll fall in love with Chiloe almost as quickly as Fahkeen fell in love with Maya.
**Cross-posted on The Barking Bitch!