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Originally published Sunday, April 21, 2013 at 5:40 AM

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‘Maya’s Notebook’: a tough young woman flees a world of trouble

In “Maya’s Notebook,” Isabel Allende creates a contemporary young woman who flees the dark underworld of Las Vegas to a refuge off the remote coast of Chile. Allende appears Wednesday, April 24, at Town Hall Seattle.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Isabel Allende

The author of “Maya’s Notebook” will appear at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Town Hall, 1119 Eighth Ave., Seattle. Presented by the Seattle Public Library and the Elliott Bay Book Co. Free advance tickets are required (800-838-3006 or www.brownpapertickets.com).

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‘Maya’s Notebook’

by Isabel Allende

Harper, 387 pp., $27.99

The bleached hair, nose ring and shoulder tattoo on the young woman on the cover of “Maya’s Notebook” are sure signs we’re not in the historical-novel territory of Isabel Allende’s “Daughter of Fortune” or “Inés of My Soul.”

But the thoroughly contemporary heroine of Allende’s latest is every bit as fierce, fragile and fascinating as the corset-wearing women the author has conjured up so well.

The journal narrated by Maya Vidal, 19, chronicles the year she is in hiding from a world of trouble nearly at the end of the world: the storm-tossed island of Chiloé, “a village of wooden houses on stilts” off the coast of Chile. “Notebook” is divided into four chapters representing the seasons, but with a Southern-Hemisphere twist: Summer is January, February and March. Winter is June, July and August.

Maya’s sanctuary in Chiloé is the home of an old friend of her Chilean grandmother, reserved but generous Manuel Arias, who harbors secrets about the atrocities committed by Chile’s dictatorship during its war against leftists. Through Maya’s observations, Allende lovingly introduces the island’s culture and customs, and its welcoming residents, who speak “Spanish at a gallop” and sprinkle their speech with diminutives, calling Maya “gringuita,” or little gringa.

“Notebook” ebbs and flows from the present to the past. Maya recalls her happy childhood in Berkeley, Calif., under the care of her doting grandparents: Popo, a gentle giant and cultured astronomer; and fiery Nini, social activist and crime-fiction fan. (The novel’s one misstep is a mystery twist that falls flat.)

The death of her beloved Popo when Maya is 16 sends her into a tailspin: “I started testing danger with the determination of someone hypnotized.” Rebellion leads to a harrowing descent into addiction and a life of crime in Las Vegas.

Allende writes chillingly of the ugly underbelly just below the glitzy veneer of Sin City. Freshly arrived in the drug den that becomes her home there, lorded over by a Fagin-esque junkie, Maya speaks with disdain of other users, not yet having hit her rock bottom: “I lost count of how many of those zombies there were around us, snotty skeletons with ulcers, agitated, trembling, sweaty, imprisoned in their hallucinations, sleepwalkers pursued by voices and bugs that crawled into their orifices.”

Blessedly, Maya gets a shot at healing and redemption, and a chance to share her journey in her old-soul way.

“As my Popo used to say, life is a tapestry we weave day by day with threads of different colors, some heavy and dark, others thin and bright, all the threads having their uses. The stupid things I did are already in the tapestry, indelible, but I’m not going to be weighed down by them till I die ...”

Longtime fans of Isabel Allende’s work will find much of the author’s beguiling mix of clear-eyed toughness and lightness of spirit in her new protagonist, and will welcome another chapter in Allende’s continuing exploration of Latin America. Those introduced to Allende by “Maya’s Notebook” surely will want more.

Agnes Torres Al-Shibibi is a Seattle Times desk editor.

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