Allende novel has grit, but loses its way

"Maya's Notebook: A Novel" by Isabel Allende, translated from Spanish by Anne McLean; HarperCollins ($27.99)

Whatever happened to magic realism?

The question arises when dipping into "Maya's Notebook," Isabel Allende's bruising, cinematically vivid new novel. It's an exercise in gritty realism rather than the fanciful folkloricism that Allende has been known for, accurately or not, since her fictional debut, "The House of the Spirits," 30 years ago.

With "Maya's Notebook," Allende succeeds in shedding all limiting labels. Written in the smart, engagingly blunt first-person voice of its teenage heroine, "Maya's Notebook" purports to be the diary-like account of a young Chilean-American's picaresque quest for love and moral enlightenment as she roams from Berkeley to Las Vegas to the Chiloe archipelago off Chile's southern coast.

Actually, Maya Vidal, 19, isn't roaming; she's running for her life. She's fleeing a scuzzy assortment of drug dealers, junkies, petty criminals and rapists, whose brutal, darkly humorous personalities and exploits are rendered in harrowingly persuasive detail.

As her story opens, Maya has been dispatched for her own safety to Chiloe to live with Manuel Arias, a mysterious old friend of her grandmother, Nini. Nini is a no-nonsense force of nature who herself went into exile a generation earlier when she exchanged Chile for Canada during the brutal dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet. Maya's absentee Danish mother and father, a pilot, are pretty much out of the picture.

Her new caretaker, Manuel, is a flinty but kindhearted septuagenarian who was banished to the island for being politically suspect during the Pinochet crackdown. Warily at first, Manuel and Maya forge a bond that allows the teenager to probe deeper into her family's past. She also becomes immersed in the lives of the island's colorful inhabitants.

"Maya's Notebook" is a story about how parents, communities and gangs — biological, surrogate and adoptive; good, bad and indifferent — mold our identities. Its strength is Maya's distinctive voice: vulnerable but spiked with irony, wounded yet defiant, like a teenage emo-punk's pierced tongue.

But in the course of its nearly 400 pages, "Maya's Notebook" never establishes a solid and illuminating connection between the viciously lurid odyssey that Maya undergoes and the discoveries that she makes about her South American family's own past ordeals.

Most readers will easily guess at the hidden tie between Nini and Manuel that is revealed anticlimactically near the end of the novel.

Yet through its well-realized heroine's evolving consciousness, "Maya's Notebook" exerts a raw and genuine power. Although Allende has set previous novels in Chile (or thinly disguised versions of it), "Maya's Notebook" offers perhaps her most visceral and urgent reckoning with the country that the ex-pat author left behind decades ago. (She is the niece of Chilean former President Salvador Allende, who was deposed and killed during the Pinochet coup.)

What Maya finally discovers through her painful journey into the self and the story she mentally composes for us is that not even a homeless, parent-less exile is truly an island. That is the book's honest and resilient revelation, with no magic required.

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