Saturday, 23 February 2019

Book review: Sea Monsters, Chloe Aridjis (2019)

This book reminded me of nothing so much as ‘Le grand Meaulnes’, the novel published in 1913 by French author Alain-Fournier, which is about a 15-year-old and his friendship with a 17-year-old and their adventures. In Aridjis’ book, which is set in late 1980s Mexico, Luisa, a Mexico City girl of 17 who likes prog rock and post-punk music goes off one day as arranged, after school has finished, with Tomas, a 19-year-old she had met on a couple of earlier occasions near her home. They travel by bus to the Pacific coast state of Oaxaca whence, Luisa had read in the newspaper, a troupe of Ukrainian dwarves had fled after quitting a touring circus.

In a small village by the sea, Luisa and Tomas rent a shelter with hammocks and gradually drift apart emotionally. Every night, Luisa goes to the bar and sits with a man she calls “the merman” who she imagines is from Eastern Europe. He doesn’t talk and they drink together, sometimes in silence, sometimes with Luisa telling stories to him. I won’t reveal any more of the plot because that would spoil the story for those who have not read the novel, but the ending is as unexpected as it feels natural.

Aridjis uses long, complex sentences to form her narrative and sometimes – in fact, quite often – she’ll repeat a word that had just been used, to sort of kick-start the narrative. This might happen after a comma. The way her sentences function reminded me a bit of Marquez but I’m not entirely sure because it has been a long time since I read any of his books. It might be relevant to consider also that Oaxaca was Frida Kahlo's birthplace.

There are a number of themes that are explored in this interesting novel, which is a coming-of-age story, but the main one is the idea of the transitoriness of things. People meet, they talk, they eat a meal together, they make love perhaps, and then the world turns and they move onto other places, other occupations. Aridjis talks at length about shipwrecks in the book, which are a kind of record or reminder of things that have passed. Linked to this motif is the sea and the dangers that it offers to people who are not careful enough when dealing with it. The sea harbours forces that might constitute a threat or they might be benign, but if you want to find out you have to go there. Be careful, is the warning, because if there are monsters you might not recognise them at first.

The threat of danger is present in this novel at one remove from the action and it is linked to the fact of Luisa’s age and her gender and the fact that she is out of her normal environment. With stories about young people, especially stories about teenagers of this age, who sit in a space between childhood and adulthood, there is a sort of refulgence that derives from the liminal nature of their time of life. The characters have no past to speak of, they are all potential, and so the narrative is completely open. Anything can happen.

In this novel, danger is for the most part kept at bay even though the writer is given plenty of opportunities to make things turn ugly. Luisa is aware of her surroundings most of the time, although occasionally she makes mistakes. How she deals with such things is part of the charm of this short novel, which took me only a few hours to read.

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