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'Sea Monsters' review: Chloe Aridjis has brief flashes of brilliance

The novel is set in the same locale as Alfonso Cuarón's "Roma."

Chloe Aridjis' new novel "Sea Monsters" is out

Chloe Aridjis' new novel "Sea Monsters" is out Tuesday. Photo Credit: Nick Tucker / Catapult

“Sea Monsters” by Chloe Aridjis calls to mind one of those bizarre bioluminescent fish that live without light, deep below the ocean’s surface. It creeps along slowly, not doing much, but then blazes forth in a fleeting flash of brilliance.

Readers may not be surprised to learn that Aridjis (born in New York, raised in Mexico City, currently living in London) holds a Ph.D. in French poetry. She creates images of surpassing beauty and even whole paragraphs that more closely resemble prose poems — “water dripping in from a punishing sky,” “cobalt blue ceding to molten orange,” and many others.

The slim novel they serve follows 17-year-old Luisa through her Mexico City neighborhood of La Roma, incidentally the same locale as Alfonso Cuarón’s award-winning film “Roma.” It is sometime after the 1985 earthquake that leveled much of the area but before the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union. Luisa’s world feels born out of those drowsy moments before waking. A night club blares Carmina Burana and puts ether in the ice to curtail drinking. School children have bodyguards. A troupe of Ukrainian dwarfs flees a traveling circus.

Luisa entices Tomás, the mysterious 19-year-old she has a crush on, to accompany her in search of the escapees, and the two run away to the Oaxacan beach town of Zipolite, where things break down, as they do, between kids who barely know each other.

Thermal inversion, ancient Greek astronomical devices, French poets (both Baudelaire and the lesser-known Lautréamont), angsty ’80s music (Depeche Mode and the Cure), the eponymous sea creatures — all are put forth with metaphorical significance, but ultimately none are developed beyond a few paragraphs. The focus turns from Luisa at the end, which is frustrating, because it is her story, even if not much happens.

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