I am a huge Isabel Allende fan and have read almost everything she has ever written, including essays and interviews. Back in the days when Borders was in town, I once hastily pre-ordered a copy of one her books, and when it arrived, it was in Spanish. The English edition wasn’t even available yet. My love affair began with House of Spirits, a book full of magical realism. Finally, after a few historical novels, Allende is back to story telling in the style of House of Spirits.
Maya is a nineteen year old in a heap of contemporary trouble. She has been raised in Berkeley, California by her grandparents and hasn’t been herself since the death of her Popo. Drugs, porn, violence, and a string of the wrong friends propel her grandmother to send Maya far, far away – to the remote Chilean island of Chiloe. There her grandmother’s friend, Manuel Arias, an introvert more than twice Maya’s age, has promised to oversee Maya’s removal from society. No internet, no contact with her past – only notebooks to record her past and recovery. Told as first person journal entries, the story of Maya’s troubled past is revealed, along Allende’s most complete assessment of Chilean political history. Allende’s uncle, Salvador Allende was killed in the bloody aftermath of the military coup that created a harsh military dictatorship, lead by General Augusto Pinochet. This history is interwoven with revelations of character relationships near the novel’s end.
This may not be Allende’s best, but the book is dedicated to the “teenagers of my tribe” and is best read as a cautionary tale. In recent interviews, Allende has shared just how autobiographic some of the events in this novel really are. Two of her husband’s adult children have died of drug related causes. Maya may be a mess in the beginning, as the Spanish cover of the novel clearly shows, but she pulls through with determination.