Maya's Notebook, By Isabel Allende, trans. Anne McLean

Myth, satire, soap: the Chilean- Californian author is still mistress of many literary trades

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The Independent Culture

Isabel Allende is a mistress storyteller. Over the past 40 years she has published some 20 family sagas, each with a strong female protagonist, generally placed in Chile or California, where Allende resides. From the initial success of House of the Spirits through the tales she told her comatose daughter, Paula, in a vain attempt to revive her; taking in autobiography related through photographs, recipes and love stories, to fantasy fiction, Allende has experimented with genre, and recounted with gusto.

Throughout, her style remains popular and her readership has accompanied her. A change of publisher for this book and the subtitle ("WANTED.ADDICTED.EXILED") plays to a populism at times testing even for her new translator, the award-winning Anne McLean.

Heroine Maya is the teenage daughter of victims of Pinochet's horrific military dictatorship in Chile, raised by her grandmother and husband in hippy-academic California. She takes off for Las Vegas where she falls in with a bad crowd, and her life spirals into chaos. Where drugs hold sway, abuse, violence and crime are bound to follow.

They are hard on Maya's heels as a last chance to escape presents itself. It's not one she initially rates highly, involving, as it does, the renunciation of her habits, including a very contemporary addiction to new technology. Lack of choice propels her to the isolated coastal island of Chiloe, where a community persists in living according to older values - intermittently inspirational and infuriating, but ultimately nurturing. She boards with Manuel Arias, an anthropologist studying the Mapuche language and lifestyle, who is not the person she takes him to be. No more than is Inspector Arana, a cop who pursues her to Chiloe in order, he says, to afford her salvation.

Allende's capacity to surprise keeps her readers page-turning, as do her descriptions of character and place – particularly those around Nini, the grandmother of Berkeley, who still turns out on demonstrations with her chanting cohorts as reliably as others attend Mass. Allende describes her long last relationship with a black anthropologist as "straight out of a Victorian novel".

Maya, however, describes her short first love affair thus: "He waited until I got my pants off, then crushed me against the pavement and exerted himself for a minute or two, stabbing me in the chest with his chains and medallions, then collapsing on top of me like a dead animal". Modern humour is grimmer in than old love stories. As the plot unravels, a Chiloe villager sighs: "The soap opera has nothing on this".

Allende is emphatic that fiction has nothing on truth in terms of either its strangeness or curiosity. Examples abound as she subverts her own soap opera to relate the back-stories of the recent present. The suds are illuminated by light wit, but dark political waters lie quietly beneath.