Cover image for Sea Monsters
Sea Monsters
Physical Description:
205 p. ;

On Order

R.H. Stafford Library (Woodbury)1On Order
Park Grove Library (Cottage Grove)1On Order



Winner of the 2020 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, this intoxicating story of a teenage girl who trades her a middle-class upbringing for a quest for meaning in 1980s Mexico is "a surreal, captivating tale about the power of a youthful imagination, the lure of teenage transgression, and its inevitable disappointments" ( Los Angeles Review of Books )

One autumn afternoon in Mexico City, seventeen-year-old Luisa does not return home from school. Instead, she boards a bus to the Pacific coast with Tomás, a boy she barely knows. He seems to represent everything her life is lacking―recklessness, impulse, independence.

Tomás may also help Luisa fulfill an unusual obsession: she wants to track down a traveling troupe of Ukrainian dwarfs. According to newspaper reports, the dwarfs recently escaped a Soviet circus touring Mexico. The imagined fates of these performers fill Luisa's surreal dreams as she settles in a beach community in Oaxaca. Surrounded by hippies, nudists, beachcombers, and eccentric storytellers, Luisa searches for someone, anyone, who will "promise, no matter what, to remain a mystery." It is a quest more easily envisioned than accomplished. As she wanders the shoreline and visits the local bar, Luisa begins to disappear dangerously into the lives of strangers on Zipolite, the "Beach of the Dead."

Meanwhile, her father has set out to find his missing daughter. A mesmeric portrait of transgression and disenchantment unfolds. Set to a pulsing soundtrack of Joy Division, Nick Cave, and Siouxsie and the Banshees, Sea Monsters is a brilliantly playful and supple novel about the moments and mysteries that shape us.

"Aridjis is deft at conjuring the teenage swooniness that apprehends meaning below every surface. Like Sebald's or Cusk's, her haunted writing patrols its own omissions . . . The figure of the shipwreck looms large for Aridjis. It becomes a useful lens through which to see this book, which is self-contained, inscrutable, and weirdly captivating, like a salvaged object that wants to return to the sea." ―Katy Waldman, The New Yorker

Author Notes

Chloe Aridjis is a Mexican American writer who was born in New York and grew up in the Netherlands and Mexico. After completing her PhD at the University of Oxford in nineteenth-century French poetry and magic shows, she lived for nearly six years in Berlin. Her debut novel, Book of Clouds , has been published in eight languages and won the Prix du Premier Roman Etranger in France. Aridjis sometimes writes about art and insomnia and was a guest curator at Tate Liverpool. In 2014, she was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship. She lives in London.

Reviews 6

Publisher's Weekly Review

In Aridjis's ethereal and ruminative debut, a new wave-loving teenage girl named Luisa, living in Mexico City, impulsively runs away from home with TomA¡s RomA¡n, an exotic and exciting boy she hardly knows. They head for Zipolite, the "Beach of the Dead" in Oaxaca, where Luisa hopes to find a missing troupe of Ukranian dwarves that she believes may be hiding in the area after escaping from a Soviet circus touring Mexico. Enmeshed in precocious Luisa's inner world, readers follow surreal fantasies and fascinations as she learns to dwell among Zipolite's population of nudists, beachcombers, hippies, and even a so-called merman while she searches for the dwarves. She also meditates on William Burroughs, Baudelaire, Laurteamont, historical curiosities such as the shipwreck where researchers discovered the mysterious Antikythera Mechanism, and, above all, her favorite bands, including Joy Division and The Cure. The book functions more like a mood piece than a traditional novel, a fitting choice in rendering Luisa and TomA¡s's life as runaways. Brilliant in her ability to get inside the head of her young narrator, Aridjis skillfully renders a slightly zonked-out atmosphere of mystery and the mind of a young romantic, resulting in a strange and hypnotic novel. (Feb.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

Booklist Review

In 1988, on a seeming whim, 17-year-old Luisa runs away from her home in Mexico City, accompanied by Tomás, a boy she scarcely knows. In a whimsical search for a group of Ukrainian dwarfs who have escaped from a Russian circus, the two travel to Oaxaca and its beach, Zipolite, the beach of the dead. Living rudely there, the two soon drift apart, and Luisa, at a beachfront bar, meets an enigmatic man she calls the Merman, whom she believes comes from a foreign country. She falls in love but then discovers the disquieting truth about the Merman. Soon thereafter, her father, who has been searching for her, discovers Luisa on the beach and takes her home. Fin. The critically acclaimed Mexican American author writes stylishly (beaches are a conversation between the elements ; weeds are like the soil's unbrushed hair ) but without drama. A description of Luisa's mood, a gloomy monotony, comes dangerously close to describing the book itself, though it does succeed in painting a portrait of Mexico at the time. Fans of character-driven fiction will find enough to like here, in spite of the relatively immobile story.--Michael Cart Copyright 2018 Booklist

School Library Journal Review

This dreamy yet unsettling coming-of-age story set in 1980s Mexico focuses on the small, surreal mysteries that shape our lives. Luisa longs to escape the detachment and boredom of everyday life. When a new love interest, Tomás, offers to take her to the Oaxaca coast, she goes with barely a second thought. The impulsive romance quickly fades, and the two drift apart. Luisa spends her time at the beach, learning the ways of the sea and searching for a troupe of Ukrainian dwarfs who defected from a traveling circus. She meets a mysterious stranger who takes the last of her attention away from Tomás, and discovers that getting to know someone often leads to disappointment. Luisa makes wise and insightful observations on the nature of change, with horror and glamour. Aridjis depicts the turbulence of adolescence sensitively. Teens will connect with Luisa's fears, her disillusionment, and her attraction to mystery. Although the story is timeless, the soundtrack of Depeche Mode, Siouxsie Sioux, and Joy Division creates an evocative sense of place. VERDICT Mature teen readers will appreciate Aridjis's writing and Luisa's emotional journey.-Heather Waddell, Abbot Public Library, Marblehead, MA © Copyright 2019. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Guardian Review

The self-absorption of adolescence is evoked with great skill in this coming-of-age novel In his Six Memos for the Next Millennium, Italo Calvino declares that with writing, unlike talking, he can revise until he is, if not quite satisfied, "able at least to eliminate those reasons for dissatisfaction" that he can identify. "Literature ... is the Promised Land in which language becomes what it really ought to be." Sea Monsters is Chloe Aridjis's third novel, following Asunder and Book of Clouds : a coming-of-age story set, for the first time, in the Mexico in which Aridjis grew up, in which the language is precise, strange, evocative and wise. It's language as it really ought to be - from the descriptive metaphors ("The waves' upward grasp. A boat in the distance, its throat flashing in the sun") to a moving depiction of missing-dog posters ("These posters would start out vivid, inked with the owner's nervous expectation, but as the days went by the hope and colour would be drained from them"). The dogs aren't all that's missing: the narrator, 17-year-old Luisa, has run away from her home in Mexico City with a 19-year-old named Tomás Román. Sea Monsters is set in the late 1980s and opens with Luisa and Tomás at an Oaxacan beach called Zipolite. Her parents are loving, even benign, and she barely knows Tomás, so what is she playing at? "At some point I would have to explain to myself and to any witnesses how it was that I had ended up in Zipolite with him," Luisa says, and then the novel leaps back in time to when she meets Tomás. She first sees him from a distance. Dressed all in black, tall, slender, he gives a coin to an organ grinder, then keeps walking. She's intrigued enough to follow him until she has to backtrack to catch the bus for school. The school is mostly populated by the sons and daughters of industrialists and politicians, and Luisa, the Joy Division-loving daughter of academics, feels adrift. Her friends are the sort of kids inclined to hang out in an abandoned, earthquake-damaged mansion: "the perfect place to smoke cigarettes and pose for imaginary album covers". She leaves without so much as a note for her parents, to whom, she knows, her disappearance will cause great pain When Luisa and Tomás chat briefly, it is all she needs to turn him into the object of an obsessive crush. She fills the margins of her school notebooks with his full name, Tomás Román, "the name blowing up genie-like as I tried out different scripts, cursive, feral and humdrum print, but after so many hours I'd tire of seeing those ten letters ... that with repetition should have worked some manner of spell, yet instead lay silent, coffined, on the page." Driven by the ingenuity of youthful infatuation, she finds more ways to spend time with him. But he doesn't talk much, nor is he particularly affectionate - there's not much substance to Luisa's crush, and she knows it. She listens to the Smiths after one of their ersatz dates, and, with the music-induced "spike in longing", she decides that "more had to happen with Tomás, something had to be sealed, there had to be a sense of complicity". That "more" comes along when she reads about Ukrainian dwarfs who have fled a circus, and are thought to be on their way to Oaxaca. It turns out that Tomás loves Oaxaca, especially Zipolite, and Luisa proposes that they go there to find the Ukrainians. He agrees. It's an indication of how young, immature and self-centred Luisa is that, on this thin premise, she leaves without so much as a note for her parents, to whom, she knows, her disappearance will cause great pain. Meanwhile, it's hard to tell how Tomás feels about all this, as he remains elusive, almost more a projection of Luisa's inchoate longing than a person. In fact, Luisa aside, none of the characters ever fully comes to life - which, in a book concerned with the self-absorption of adolescence, feels eminently plausible. Luisa devotes more time to rereading Baudelaire and figuring out which Walkman tapes she'll take on her trip than she does to her parents' plight, or to really getting to know Tomás. She's full of longing, but she hasn't quite figured out for what; she's avid to escape, but she's not sure where to. In the meantime, music and poetry are pointing the way. In an indelible scene on the Zipolite shore, Tomás calls her attention to a cluster of palms. "I'll race you to those trees," he says. She starts outstripping him, at which point he, without warning, turns around. He runs at full speed in the opposite direction. He's ceding the race he was going to lose anyway; she's won, but what has she won? The novel poses far more questions than it answers, and it does so accurately and beautifully.

Kirkus Review

New fiction from the author of Asunder (2013) and Book of Clouds (2009).In the late 1980s, Luisa is 17, about to graduate from a prestigious high school in Mexico City. A scholarship student and the child of two academics, she doesn't fit in with the wealthy and aristocratic kids at her school. She finds her tribe among the outcasts who listen to Joy Division and The Cure. She finds her soul mate when the sullen, black-clad Toms enters her life, and she finds her purpose when she reads a newspaper article about Ukrainian dwarfs who have run away from the circus on a tour of Mexico. Together, Luisa and Toms run off to the seaside town of Zipolite in search of the missing circus performers. What Aridjis makes of this surprising story israther boring. The book is half over before the heroine embarks on her quest, and nothing we learn in the first half of the story explains why Luisa would do something so capricious. At the same time, it's hard to care. For a novel in which shipwrecks and the denizens of the ocean floor are recurring metaphors, this book seldom dives into the narrative. Instead of depth, we get a baroque style that doesn't add much to our enjoyment or understanding. Early on, Luisa says of Toms: "He had started out as a snag, a snag in the composition; from one moment to the next, there was no other way of putting it, he had begun to appear in my life back in the city. And since all appearances are ultimately disturbances, this disturbance needed investigating." The novel is full of this sort of complicated language, and the story seldom benefits from it. References to 1980s punk and New Wave will be nostalgic landmarks for many readers, but we learn very little about Luisa beyond her taste in music. After Luisa realizes that the Toms of her daydreams is nothing like the real boy, she goes looking for connection among the denizens of Zipolite and finds herself caught up in trouble she had not anticipated. There are eccentric characters and sensational incidents, but we never go below the surface.A shallow coming-of-age fable. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Library Journal Review

In this coming-of-age story, teenage -Luisa runs away from home in Mexico City to the Zipolite beach on the Pacific coast with a boy from school named Tomás Roman. At the beach, famous for its natural beauty and free-spirited vacationers, Luisa finds refuge from city, school, and family life. She quickly realizes that she really doesn't have any feelings for Tomás, even as a mysterious stranger attracts her attention. Meanwhile, she becomes immersed in the ways of the sea, and as she walks near the waves one night she glimpses some of the missing Ukrainian dwarfs who escaped from a traveling Soviet circus. This event, as well as other surreal episodes, give this novel its unusual power and charm. VERDICT Written by a young and highly regarded Mexican American author whose debut novel, Book of Clouds, won a major prize in France, this work deftly communicates the wonder and amazement of discovery characterizing Luisa's inner and outer worlds. Aridjis is an accomplished wordsmith, and readers will find themselves rereading many passages in this wise, marvelous novel.-Lisa Rohrbaugh, Leetonia Community P.L., OH © Copyright 2019. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Imprisoned on this island , I would say, Imprisoned on this island. And yet I was no prisoner and this was no island. During the day I'd roam the shore, aimlessly, purposefully, and in search of digressions. The dogs. A hut. Boulders. Nude tourists. Scantily clad ones. Palm trees. Palapas. Sand sifting umber and adrenaline. The waves' upward grasp. A boat in the distance, its throat flashing in the sun. The ancient Greeks created stories out of a simple juxtaposition of natural features, my father once told me, investing rocks and caves with meaning, but there in Zipolite I did not expect any myths to be born. Zipolite. People said the name meant Beach of the Dead, though the reason for this was debated--was it because of the number of visitors who met their end in the treacherous currents, or because the native Zapotecs would bring their dead from afar to bury in its sands? Beach of the Dead: it had an ancient ring, ancestral, commanding both dread and respect, and after hearing about the unfortunate souls who each year got caught in the riptide I decided I would never go in beyond where I could stand. Others said Zipolite meant Lugar de Caracoles, place of seashells, an attractive thought since spirals are such neat arrangements of space and time, and what are beaches if not a conversation between the elements, a constant movement inward and outward? Yet my favorite explanation, which only one person put forward, was that Zipolite was a corruption of the word zopilote , and that every night a black vulture would envelope the beach in its dark wings and feed on whatever the waves tossed up. It's easier to reconcile yourself with sunny places if you can imagine their nocturnal counterpart. Once dusk had fallen I would head to the bar and spend hours under its thatched universe, a large palapa on the shores of the Pacific decked with stools, tables, and miniature palm trees. It was where all boats came to dock and refuel, syrup added to cocktails for maximum sweetness, and I'd imagine that everything was as artificial as the electric blue drink: that the miniature palm trees grew fake after dusk, the chlorophyll struggling and the life force gone from the green, that the wooden stools had turned to laminate. Sometimes the hanging lamps would be dimmed and the music amplified, a cue for the drunks and half drunks to clamber onto the tables and start dancing. The shoreline ran through every face, destroying some, enhancing others, and at moments when I'd had enough reminders of humanity I would look around for the dogs who like everyone else at the beach came and went according to mood. A curious snout or a pair of gleaming eyes would appear on the fringes of the palapa, take in the scene, and then, most often, finding nothing of interest, retire once more into darkness. Before long, it became apparent that the bar in Zipolite was a meeting place for fabulists, and everyone seemed to concoct a tale as the night wore on. One girl, a painter with cartoon lips and squinty eyes, said her boyfriend had suffered a heart attack on his yacht and been forced to drop her off at the nearest port since his wife was about to be helicoptered in with a doctor. In more collected tones, a tall German explained to everyone that he was a representative of the German Society for Protection Against Superstition, or Deutsche Gesellschaft Schutz vor Aberglauben--he wrote the name in tiny German script on a sheet of rolling paper for us to read--and had been sent to Mexico after a stint in Italy. An actress from Zacatecas no one had heard of insisted she was so famous that a theater, a planet, and a crater on Venus had been named after her. And you, someone would ask, noticing how intently I listened, What brought you here? I had run away, I told them, I'd run away from home. Are your parents evil? No, not at all. . . . I was in Zipolite with a boy. I'd run away, mainly, because of a boy. And where was this boy? Good question. And who was this boy? Another good question. But that, too, was only half the truth. I had also come here because of the dwarves. However fantastical it now seemed, I was here with Tomás, a boy I hardly knew, in search of a troupe of Ukrainian dwarves. And if I stopped to think about it for more than a few instants, the situation was almost entirely my fault. It was therefore not surprising that calming thoughts were hard to come by. No calm, but I did feel profoundly numb, as if stuck halfway through a dream, a dream I didn't seem able to exit. Excerpted from Sea Monsters: A Novel by Chloe Aridjis All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.