SET IN MEXICO to a soundtrack of angsty ’80s music, Chloe Aridjis’s Sea Monsters is a surreal, captivating tale about the power of a youthful imagination, the lure of teenage transgression, and its inevitable disappointments.

It is 1988, and Luisa is a precocious 17-year-old who enjoys reading Baudelaire and discussing ancient Greece with her father over dinner. As she lies awake at night her mind turns not only to boys but also to “the velocity of particles traveling along a given axis; the indispensability of horses and railways during the Mexican Revolution; a map of chromosomal deviations; character development in Macbeth.” She is bored and friendless at her elite international school, where her classmates — rich Europhiles and US expatriates — have bodyguards waiting for them outside the front gates. Along with a slightly older boy, Tomás, on whom she has developed a crush, she hatches a plan to run away to Oaxaca in pursuit of a troupe of Ukrainian dwarves who have apparently escaped a Soviet circus currently touring Mexico. The pair end up in Zipolite, a coastal resort known as the Beach of the Dead, where they quickly lose interest in one another.

Plot has very little role to play in Sea Monsters; Aridjis allows her narrative to swell and recede like the sea, along with Luisa’s capacious imagination. Episodes from the beach and the city are woven together, not so much to advance a narrative arc, as to build rich evocations of place and to sketch out the inner world of a fickle teenager who is both restless and apathetic, self-absorbed and self-aware.

Aridjis’s first novel, Book of Clouds, has been called a “stunningly accurate portrait of Berlin”; in Sea Monsters, her portrayal of Mexico City is no less vivid. Luisa’s family home is in Colonia Roma, now familiar to so many international viewers thanks to Alfonso Cuarón and Netflix. Aridjis beautifully captures the neighborhood’s crumbling buildings, public fountains, uneven pavements, and, above all, its sounds: “car horns, the cries of ambulatory vendors, deliverymen on motorcycles, radios playing on nearby rooftops and patios,” silenced only in the immediate aftermath of the 1985 earthquake. The violent rains, the traffic, the perennial security threat — these scenes wonderfully evoke the city’s ability to make its inhabitants feel claustrophobic. On days when the smog is not so suffocating, Luisa searches for views of the distant volcanoes on its perimeter. They appear “taunting and majestic,” fueling her desire to leave.

But the novel is just as powerful when depicting the capital’s opposite, the tiny Oaxacan beach town of Zipolite, which turns out to be no idyll either. Here Aridjis evokes the eerie, interminable crashing of waves on the shore; the eccentric mix of nudists, beachcombers, and European tourists; the surreal way objects and buildings seem to ripple in the salt and wind; and the lethargy and disaffection brought on by a string of identical hot days: “It was a quarter past crow, half past seagull, five to owl. I could roughly gauge time from the movement of the sun, yet the hour of the day and the day of the week seemed irrelevant, one folding into the next like a collapsing accordion.”

The nebulous sea monsters of the novel’s title surface in both the novel’s locations. Images of shipwrecks, shells-spirals, and mythical water-creatures accompany us from city to coast, emphasizing the lure of the unknown and the protagonist’s capacity for fantasy. Luisa’s father, who is a university professor, tells her the story of Antikythera, a Roman-era ship that has lain at the bottom of the Mediterranean for over 20 centuries, and she runs with the idea, imagining one of its treasures — the marble statue of a horse — galloping “along endless banks of seabed, kicking up whole paragraphs of sand.”

Late one night in la Roma, she encounters an old homeless woman bathing in a public fountain. With the water pouring over her body, she looks like a creature from the deep, half-mermaid, half-precious stone: her “long tresses falling around her rather hunchbacked body, which in the wan light looked like an irregular pearl with misplaced curves and lumps.” These images trail Luisa to Zipolite, where she becomes preoccupied by stories of people drowning off the beach — a group of local Zapotec girls, a poet on holiday — and spends much of her time brooding over the ocean’s immense power. As she imagines the everlasting night experienced by creatures living in its depths, the “hundreds of dissolved bodies […] swirling round with the shells and seaweed,” the sea becomes symbolic of all that is both alluring and slightly frightening to her.

The Ukrainian dwarves — the initial excuse for running away — are never found, though that is not the point. Rather, like the sea, the dwarves represent all that Luisa desires: mystery and escape, something exotic and possibly dangerous. Tomás, too, attracts her purely because he is different from the other kids she knows. She admits that she doesn’t even particularly like him at first, and that it’s his perceived darkness that intrigues her: “He was a sliver of black slicing through the so-called calm of the morning.” They aren’t in Zipolite for long before he begins to lose his appeal. As soon as she sees him out of context — away from la Roma’s dingy nightclubs and out of his all black clothes — he suddenly seems less of a maverick, more of a disappointment. Instead she fixes her affections on “the Merman,” a much older man with a Slavic-looking, angular face, who listens in silence before disappearing with nothing but a wave of his hand. Like the dwarves, he represents the unknown and Europe behind the Iron Curtain, but he too turns out to be largely a figment of her imagination. That’s the problem with mysterious people, Luisa realizes: “[O]nce you spend time with them they’re not so mysterious after all.”

Aridjis’s protagonist is so rich and interesting because she is full of contradiction. For all that she is image conscious and desirous of new experiences, her fragile sensibility is quietly revealed when she is disturbed by the casual crushing of a dead toad lying in the street or the repetitive pounding of the waves on the sand at night. And despite her bouts of youthful selfishness, she is neither entirely thoughtless nor entirely reckless. Before leaving for Oaxaca, she worries over the effect her absence might have on her conscientious parents, for whom she holds no special resentment. Her father’s protracted search for her acts as a more urgent counterpart to her own journey, his episodic narrative offering a window into a parallel adult world where there is real purpose and real stakes. It reminds us that Luisa’s attempt at escape, and her fascination with darkness and death, are possible precisely because she is confident of a loving, comfortable home. 

Sea Monsters is a contemplative, meandering novel — there are no unexpected plot twists, no great climactic resolution. But, Aridjis excels at writing a life lived in the borderlands between reality and fantasy, conveying the imagination of a 17-year-old with whims and fancies that are intriguing rather than exasperating or laughable. Luisa’s goals remain elusive, and her gradual disenchantment is entirely relatable. Moreover, the novel’s precocious teenage narrative voice is replete with sentences of rare beauty and power. I may start reading it again at once.

¤

Ellen Jones is a researcher, editor, and translator from Spanish. Her translation of Rodrigo Fuentes’s Trout, Belly Up, is published by Charco Press.