Thursday 17 October 2019

A watery, dreamlike tale of teenage runaway in 1980s Mexico

Fiction: Sea Monsters

Chloe Aridjis

Chatto & Windus, hardback, 192 pages, €18.19

Restlessness: Aridjis based the book on an episode from her youth
Restlessness: Aridjis based the book on an episode from her youth
Sea Monsters

Francesca Carington

Despite its rompy premise - 17-year-old Luisa runs away to a beach in Oaxaca with a mysterious boy to search for a troupe of Ukrainian dwarves - Sea Monsters isn't a picaresque Ferris Bueller-style caper or finding-myself odyssey, but rather a meandering account of stasis; a big old "what now?"

Chloe Aridjis's third novel is based on an episode from her teenage years in late 1980s Mexico and its brilliance lies in capturing so convincingly that state of adolescent restlessness. The only drawback is that this story of a teenage runaway could stand to be a bit more fun.

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Luisa, the daughter of an academic and a translator, lives in Mexico City and goes to a rich kids' school. She's clearly smarter than her classmates and cooler, too, hanging out with artists and punks. She takes up with 19-year-old dropout Tomas, and, when she sees in the paper that 12 dwarves are missing from a visiting circus, the two board a bus to Zipolite, the "Beach of the Dead", to find them. This is where most of the introspective, elliptical novel takes place, unravelling Luisa's musings and wanderings, as she meets beachcombers, hippies, nudists, fabulists and a silent, solitary drinker she calls the merman.

Luisa's defining characteristic, beyond a melancholic obsession with shipwrecks, is passivity. She's an observer, and the narrative pauses constantly to tell the tales of others: the girl who overdosed in a posy nightclub; four Zapotec girls who drowned; the beachcomber who dreams of buying a metal detector. And the stories she doesn't know, she invents: a tale of father-daughter estrangement ("Yes, this was the story, I thought to myself"); an eastern European background for the merman; and of course Tomas, the object of her infatuation, is more romanticised than real. And when, unsurprisingly, he turns out to be a jerk, she is drawn instead to the still-enigmatic merman. "That was the problem with mysterious people, I explained, once you spend time with them they're not so mysterious after all." Shipwrecks exert such a pull over her imagination because they're submerged, ever unknowable. Even after Tomas has left the scene, Luisa remains on Zipolite, waiting, watching, as if by absorbing enough of other people's experiences she might figure something out about herself. The beach is a strange, liminal space, where it's always night and time seems to stand still.

"I'd intentionally left my watch at home, or perhaps I'd forgotten it, but what purpose, anyway, would it serve here on the beach? Oaxaca ran on Oaxaca time, Tomas on Tomas time, even the dogs ran on their own time." The sea, "vast and indifferent as a cathedral", does what it always does, continuing "to write and erase its long ribbon of foam".

Aridjis's languid prose lets these images wash over the reader, unfurling in comma-rich sentences that beautifully render a state of inertia.

When she's finally found by her father, she contemplates that "to imagine travel is probably better than actually travelling since no journey can ever satisfy human desire; as soon as one sets out, fantasies get tangled in the rigging and the dark birds of doubt begin their circling overhead." Sombre thoughts for a 17-year-old. But not altogether sad; Aridjis leaves us with the sense that Luisa's disillusionment, like everything else, is in flux.

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