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She writes what she knows, and it's compelling

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Allende is known to millions for her bewitching storytelling ability.

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Allende is known to millions for her bewitching storytelling ability.

Chilean literary star Isabel Allende's latest work of fiction is one part coming-of-age novel, one part heavy-hitting addiction memoir and one part mystical oasis, with elements of suspense thrown in.

Allende is known to millions for her bewitching storytelling ability, showcased in such novels as House of the Spirits (1982) and City of the Beast (2002). Maya's Notebook comes through satisfyingly, but it can lag at times.

It features newly sober and clean 19-year-old Maya, who needs to shake Interpol, the FBI and the Mafia. What better place for an American to drop off the map than in Chiloé, an isolated archipelago off southern Chile?

Allende writes about what she knows. She was born in Peru and raised in Chile, but fled with her family to Venezuela after the 1973 military coup. She now lives in California and has written candidly in The Sum of Our Days about her stepdaughter's drug addiction.

Widely considered to be one of Latin-America's most important contemporary authors (earning comparisons to Gabriel Garca Márquez for her magic realist style), she continues to write in Spanish. This is her 18th book.

It takes the form of a journal in which Maya wryly observes her new surroundings, while gradually, and tantalizingly, doling out information about the events that have brought her there. Her grandmother, originally from Chile, has arranged to have her trusted old friend, Manuel, take Maya in.

Incommunicado, she assists the retired professor in researching a book about the mythology of the region. Having been exiled to Chiloé during the dictatorship, he has now returned in his old age, still battling nightmares.

No sparkly-eyed Globe Trekker guide, Maya has aged beyond her years. She sounds credible as she records her impressions with confidence, intelligence and an irreverent sense of humour.

Describing the tourists who come to Chiloé to go back in time, for example, she slyly explains how the locals avoid spoiling the effect by never using cellphones in public.

She's fascinated by the lore and superstitions of the islands, like the brujos, or witches, said to wear vests made from the skin of cadavers. A deep sense of companionship evolves with time, while a somewhat flat love interest also comes her way.

We learn that as the consequence of an extremely short marriage, Maya was brought up by loving grandparents in Berkeley, Calif. Her grandmother was widowed shortly after the military takeover in Chile, left the country with her young son and eventually married an African-American astronomy professor, known by Maya as her "magnificent Popo."

Allende's portrayal of this man and their relationship is a wonder. He is marvellous.

Very early in the novel, we discover that Popo died when Maya was a teenager, leaving her adrift. She turns to alcohol and other chemicals, is exploited, and exploits.

The gritty stories of her addiction and rehab rival anything in Nic Sheff's real-life memoir Tweak, but just when it becomes unbearably painful to witness, Maya switches to an account of life on the island. It's a stark contrast that has the effect of making Chiloé a mystical place of healing.

It just can't protect her from the past muscling in.

Cut from the same cloth as The House of the Spirits and Paula (1995), though not quite on par with them, Maya's Notebook is woven using threads common to most of Allende's books -- strong bonds between family and friends, a fascination with the irrational world and the love of a good story.

 

Ursula Fuchs is a Winnipeg registered nurse and has been delaying a trip to South America for far too long.

Maya's Notebook

By Isabel Allende, translated by Anne McLean

HarperCollins, 400 pages, $23

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 4, 2013 J7

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