A chance meeting on the Fijian island of Taveuni is the trigger for a fascinating and mysterious novel that intertwines the stories of John Spooke, an English author who is grieving for his dead wife; Frank Andersen, a Norwegian evolutionary biologist estranged from his wife Vera; and an enigmatic Spanish couple, Ana and Jose, who are absorbed in their love for each other. Why does Ana bear such a close resemblance to the model for Goya's famous Maja paintings? What is the significance of the Joker as he steps out of his pack of cards?
As the action moves from Fiji to Spain, from the present to the past, unfolding further stories within the stories, the novel reveals an astonishing richness and complexity. As bold and imaginative in its sweep as Sophie's World, it shows again that Jostein Gaarder's unique and special gift is to make us wonder at the awe-inspiring mystery of the universe.
A shamelessly didactic novel, read by many who would never have picked up a copy of Plato in anger, Sophie's World caught the imagination of the English language reading public by being very different to anything being written in English at the time. (This may still be the case, hence the popularity of European writers of intellectual diversions, such as Gaarder and Umberto Eco.) Now, with Maya, Gaarder returns to the philosophical entertainment, and his scope is as big as ever; bigger, in fact, since, as opposed to simply the playful history of the thought processes of homo sapiens, Maya is concerned with the struggle for self-awareness, in evolution and in art. The island of Taveuni, the only island on Earth where the visitor can straddle today and tomorrow across the international dateline, is the setting for a curious meeting of minds, including John, an English novelist, Frank, a Norwegian evolutionary biologist, Ana, a Spanish flamenco dancer, and her TV producer partner Jose; a meeting that spills over into further apparently coincidental encounters in Spain, where Frank attempts reconciliation with his estranged wife, and meets Ana and Jose. The gentle, almost benign scheming of the protagonists (another reminiscence of Sophie's World) results in a fine, rich mixture of science and art, curiosity and the satisfaction of understanding that is Gaarder's trademark. Gaarder's great strength as a narrator is his profound awareness that the act of understanding is as powerful and satisfying as any emotion, and his novels are intriguing journeys towards greater understanding. Maya is also about love and loss, acts of creation and fear of extinction, and it's about the necessity for forgiveness and redemption. It's about building worlds, and inhabiting worlds of which you yourself are a facet. It's about so many things you'd think it would rupture its bindings and spill out into the real world; and it's about that as well. Gaarder is a writer of books that are almost incapable of summary; the best advice I can give is, go and read. Review by Alex Benzie the author of The Angle of Incidence. (Kirkus UK)