I’ve said it before and I will say it again: Isabel Allende is brilliant, an under-rated writer of supreme skill, ignored from lists of “greats of South American literature” purely because she is a woman. Paula is one of the most beautiful, moving and enrapturing memoirs I’ve ever read (and I’ve read a lot) and The House of the Spirits is an engaging, magical and hugely evocative novel that shits all over the Gabriel García Márquez novel is in indebted to, One Hundred Years of Solitude. Maya’s Notebook, her novel-before-last, is a literary thriller that offers a lot of emotive detail about death, mourning, desperation, family, the Chilean coup, friendship and love, as well as a somewhat incidental plot about drug dealers and international super-rich criminals.
Maya’s Notebook is written from the perspective of Maya, a young San Franciscan woman raised by her grandmother and her husband, who goes a long way off the rails following the death of the man she considers her grandfather, her Popo. She gets involved in drug use and prostitution and, after running away from rehab, some pretty serious organised crime. The novel runs in two parallel timeframes: one is about Maya recuperating and hiding from the consequences of her actions on an island in south Chile, while the other tells the story of her early abandonment by her parents, her happy childhood with her grandmother and her Popo, then everything takes a turn for the worse. Until about halfway through, the self-reflective comments Maya makes about her past life seem a bit overblown – nothing very bad has happened. However, the portion of the novel set in Las Vegas offers an escalation of descent that I found – against my better judgement – to be justifiable within the confines of the book.
Allende’s novel bounces between quite pacey plot and quite relaxed discussion of the ideas of love, particularly love as it ages, and love amongst those over seventy. She offers a beautiful evocation of a cancer deathbed, describing a wide range of the thoughts and feelings I recognised from my own experiences at the end of my grandmother’s life last Summer.
Allende writes about emotion without being over-emotional, she describes the horrors of the Chilean coup with knowledge and passion, she describes the breathtaking countryside of her homeland (Chile) with clarity, and writes about the divisive society of her adopted home (California) with compassion and hope. Like in many of Allende’s novels, there is an autobiographical character, and here it is Maya’s charming and hippieish Chilean grandmother. She is wise and caring and, in a very funny scene, accidentally takes some of her wayward granddaughter’s ecstasy. Well, it made me laugh.
More than anything, Maya’s Notebook reminded me of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch (my review here) – in that it’s a literary thriller that features a section about a young and grief-stricken person going off the rails in Las Vegas, in that there is unrequited love, in that there is an element of distancing and reflecting on the past… The difference, though, is where the novels fail.
Isabel Allende’s plot does work – though there are twists and turns, they have always been forewarned. One major “twist” is hugely obvious*, but it doesn’t matter, really, because the best bits of Maya’s Notebook are the sections about loss, about politics, about human relationships and about emotion. This book made me laugh and cry, several times, whereas all The Goldfinch made me do was read on, hungry for plot. Donna Tartt can plot excellently – her third novel is a rip-roaring and hugely exciting adventure, but where it fails is in its description of the connections between humans. Others may argue that it’s about disaffected people, but so is a lot of Maya’s Notebook. There is no way this is as good as the other books I’ve read by Allende, but the loss of quality isn’t big, and it’s only really apparent because I get a bit turned off by plot. The Goldfinch, just to end this comparison, is little more than plot. Which isn’t enough to sustain a book of that length to a discerning reader.**
Maya’s Notebook is a perfectly functioning thriller – the plot did involve me, and that matters. But why it’s a great novel and why it is far from the last Allende I will read, is because Maya’s Notebook packages a flimsy crime drama within a moving story about death, regret and emotional repression. There are many characters who grow within this text, there are minor players who are very memorable – Allende can create a personality with a handful of sentences, can neatly evoke an entire life and mentality, where other writers wouldn’t bother. She is an excellent writer of fiction, and though I am sadly aware that her most recent novel is even more crime-y than this one (Ripper, or El juego de Ripper), I’m reassured by the fact that she published many novels before this late-career shift.
Or, maybe, she’s refined her crime style, and Ripper is a consummate literary/genre fiction crossover. I’ll wait and see.
Maya’s Notebook, though, is definitely an enjoyable read. YEAH!
* SPOILER: Could the police officer who turns up out of uniform and gifts the protagonist the “emergency cocaine” he carries be corrupt???
** Perfect comparison: I may watch a two hour action film and have a great time, but I wouldn’t watch a whole fucking season of 24 or Prison Break. You see my point?