At the beginning of Aridjis’ wonderfully fluid novel, 17 year old Luisa tells us that her story, her reason for running away to the Mexican coastal resort of Zipolite, began with a quest to find a missing troupe of Ukranian dwarves who have themselves run away from a travelling circus. It feels almost inevitable that Luisa, desperate to have stories to tell, has rocked up here – ‘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.’ She also focuses on the sea, aware of its destructive, shifting narrative power, as it ‘continued to write and erase its long ribbon of foam.’ It’s not just at the beach that Luisa meets a fascinating set of characters – her home life is peopled with a fantastical list of adolescents all in the process of forging their own identities: ‘… the doorbell rang, announcing the Afterhours gang. They were like astronomers: night was never long enough or black enough.’ Aridjis’ narrator is a born story-teller.
Like all good quest narratives, there are false starts and disillusionment. At the beginning, Luisa feels that, ‘the time had come to assert my independence … for long enough I’d accepted life just as it was.’ She travels to Zipolite (‘people said the name meant Beach of the Dead’) with Tomás, a boy she has romanticised heavily. Once in this new environment, however, he loses some of his appeal. ‘He had traded his fitted black garments for linen, white and baggy, and there was something cloudlike about his appearance, vague and undefined, that didn’t suit him.’ Appearance, so key to defining identity in the city, is more problematic at the coast, and Luisa’s sense of questing, for what she is perhaps unsure of, leads her to pursue the ‘Merman’ as a lover.
There are subtle notes of magical realism in the novel, adding a dream-like quality to the some of the descriptions, and linking the beach with death and loss. A woman tells Luisa about the four Zapotec girls who abandoned their clothes and their usual modesty and dived into the waves, despite the fact they could not swim. ‘… peculiar circumstances, it was agreed, for which there was no accounting, yet no one took no notice until their bodies washed ashore, one by one…’ but, elsewhere, Luisa tells us about the historic Greek shipwrecks she’s read about, linking both her unease of the sea to her fascination with Baudelaire’s poem, Un Voyage à Cythère, itself concerned with a quest of sorts. When she describes the Antikytera Mechanism (a 2,000-year-old astronomical mechanical device considered to be a very early analogue computer found on a Roman shipwreck), she says, ‘I couldn’t help thinking of the Baudelaire poem, envisioning a mysterious force that worked against the romantic.’
Using her observations and the stories she has absorbed from others, Luisa makes for a fascinating representation of young womanhood, at once vulnerable and adventurous, as she comes of age. I could write another ten essays (for this is what I think this review is becoming) on this novel, being as it is so incredibly rich in its ideas and in its quality. So, so very good.
My thanks to Mia Quibell-Smith at Penguin Random House for my review copy.