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Chloe Aridjis: Sea Monsters

Our heroine is Luisa, a seventeen year old Mexican schoolgirl, who lives and studies in Mexico City in 1988. At the beginning, we know she has run away to Zipolite. The name apparently, means Beach of the Dead. She has run away for two reasons, firstly because of a troupe of Ukrainian dwarves and secondly to follow a young man, Tomás, two years her senior.

In Mexico City, she had been friendly with a variety of boys but, in particular Julián. (I tended to avoid the girls; in one way or another. Male friendships lasted longer, it was no mystery. Neither Julián nor the other boys were boyfriends, just friends. Julián she saw as the brother she never had.

Tomás Román had dropped out of school and was now working in a bookshop and living in a squat. There were a lot of houses that had been abandoned as they have been damaged in a recent earthquake. She had seen him around, noticed him and been attracted to him, not least because he seemed different from the other boys she knew. Indeed, she sees him several times. Finally he asks her out – to a wrestling match. She is intrigued, though does not particularly enjoy it.

Luisa has a fascination with the sea. For French class, she had chosen Baudelaire’s poem Un Voyage à Cythère to study. The poem is not particularly about the sea, though her teacher had said to her when she chose it that one’s true interest should be the sea. but Cythère is Kythera in English and she knew of Kythera because of her father.

Her father taught classics and she had found his stories from the classics quite boring, till he told her about shipwrecks and, in particular, about the Antikythera wreck. It became her favourite wreck and aroused an interest in the sea in her.

Her parents seemed distracted, not involved in her life. Her father was focussing on his academic work, writing papers and a book. He has now been disrupted by the demolition and of the neighbouring house and a new, much more secure house being built on the land. It is not surprisingly very noisy. Her mother seemed distracted by money worries.

Luisa and Tomás make their plans. She had read about the Ukrainian dwarves in a newspaper. She normally watched TV but it was out of order, so she read the paper and learned that the dwarves had defected from a Soviet circus troupe and were now wandering somewhere around Oaxaca, so it is to Oaxaca and, specifically, to Zipolite, they decide to go.

The second part of the book is about Luisa’s time in Zipolite. She and Tomás go their separate ways, as he effectively abandons her but she does not really mind. They bump. into one another now and again. Relations are cordial but not warm. She makes friend with a strange man who builds complex sandcastles and does not seem to speak any language she knows. She calls him Merman, thinks he may be from Eastern Europe and he briefly replaces Tomás in her affections, till she finds out who he really is.

Above all she concocts stories, fantasies as she wanders around the town. She imagines the dwarves, whom she thinks she sees, as KGB agents, inspired to some degree by the Trotsky House in Mexico City she has visited a couple of times.

This is the story of young woman, looking for herself and her way. She has few friends. Indeed, she imagines shortly leaving school and not having to see any of the girls in her class again. She is not close to her parents and sees them as remote. She has no siblings. Her only inspiration, apart from French poetry, seems to be English New Wave music of the 1980s – Joy Division, Depeche Mode, the Cure (though no punk – no Clash or Sex Pistols). Whether she will find herself and her Ukrainian dwarves and whether it will be with the help of Tomás, the Merman or anyone else is the key to this novel.

Publishing history

First published by Catapult in 2019