In all of her work, Isabel Allende has explored the ways in which people survive, even thrive, after trauma. Into the dark corners of history and the human psyche she boldly goes, shining a strong light on evil, sorrow and secrets. And yet, it is not darkness that is her focus, but rather the things that dim and disperse it — kindness, forgiveness, empathy. Allende is a disciple of love. In her world, love wears down dictators, heals the sick, surprises the hopeless, renders life magical.
That theme — our capacity to inflict great evil but also to love and heal — is again dominant in “Maya’s Notebook.”
Maya is a teenager who has been deserted by her birthparents and raised in Berkeley, Calif., by her grandparents — tall, gentle astronomer Popo, formerly of Canada, and diminutive, fierce Nini, formerly of Chile. When Popo dies of cancer, grief drives Maya to dangerous distraction. In the space of a year or two, she becomes an alcoholic, a drug addict, a prostitute and a rape victim, living in near-slavery in Las Vegas, entrapped by a drug dealer who one moment treats her tenderly, the next with profanity-punctuated threats. Her ordeals are eloquently and graphically portrayed.
Thanks to the intervention of kind strangers and the tenacity that hibernates beneath Maya’s brutalization and addictions, she is rescued and rehabbed, but has to be hidden to protect her from murderous thugs. Her grandmother sends her to the remotest place she can think of, the island of Chiloe, off the coast of her native Chile. There, Maya is given shelter by a friend of her grandmother’s, the taciturn scholar Manuel.
Slowly and shakily, she heals on this strange, sunny island. The self-described “absurd gringa” begins to keep a notebook chronicling her days and the island’s culture and inhabitants, many of whom, like her, harbor sad secrets. As her strength returns, she regains the capacity to wonder and care about others, and still further on, to risk love.
Manuel’s sparse advice to her captures the book’s theme: “Fear gets in through the same aperture as love. What I’m trying to tell you is that if you’re able to love very much, you’re also going to suffer a lot.”
Eventually, danger finds its way to the island, and drama ensues. But finally, courage, hope and love are left standing.
Allende writes with raw eloquence about the most horrific things — torture, child rape, incest, drug abuse, murder — yet still creates a book that is largely sunny of aspect. Much of that is due to her ability to transport the reader to an exotic world, to describe in tender, sometimes mischievous detail its people, animals, plants, weather. Her prose warms you like fine red wine.
It may be a flaw that Maya’s narrative voice more often resembles that of a wise old woman than a damaged teenager. Or, one can believe, as Allende clearly wants us to, that suffering can fast-forward people to special wisdom.
Maya’s story is soul-restoring in its fierce conviction that there is no damage done to a society, family or individual that cannot be eclipsed by hope and love. Allende makes you believe that, even if you don’t, at least for a while.
Pamela Miller is the Star Tribune’s West Metro Team leader.