A desert fairytale that falls apart as the author's limitations betray her.
By: Susan Elderkin
Rating: 5 out of 10
Available at Eurobooks, Jesenského 5-9, Bratislava
Sunset Over Chocolate Mountains by Susan Elderkin is an intricately constructed novel propelled by a secret. The revelatation of this secret is a betrayal of its characters, a straining attempt to add susbtance by fixing a profound tragedy to the book's end. But until then it has a spunky, mystical charm, and will be interesting for expats because two of its characters are from Czechoslovakia.
Set in 1970s and 1980s, the novel shifts focus from Theobald Moon, an overweight Englishman who moves to the Arizona desert on a whim, to Eva Legocká, a worker at a Partizánske (central Slovakia) shoe factory who wavers between flirting with men she doesn't like and not flirting at all. Another main locus is Josephine Moon, the daughter of Theobald.
The chapters which include Josephine Moon are written in the first person and set years ahead of the other events. As Theobald Moon and Eve Ligocká move toward the circumstances that presumably lead to Josephine's birth, Josephine grows from a four-year-old into a teenager, her love for her father slowly turning to resentment as he refuses to answer to her curiosity about her mother.
As complicated as the setup sounds, Elderkin builds clear and bold puzzle pieces, then slides them together at a crisp, even pace. Eva falls in love with a mysterious icecream-truck man who seems destined to take her somewhere far away while Theobald Moon (somewhere far away) is building the desert castle - a used trailer park surrounded by a pampered cactus garden - that his unborn daughter will one day inhabit.
Meanwhile (or back to the future) Josephine finds 18 pairs of women's shoes. Theobald loves to tell his daughter stories, but won't talk about the shoes. "Not that one," he says. "Not yet." When she starts elementary school, his hermit ways (he is obese, can barely drive, and wears the same clothes every day) embarrass her, but it's his unwillingness to part with the secret of her existence that ultimately costs him her love.
Elderkin is a polished writer who revels in imagery, which is alternately charming and burdensome. I enjoyed her 1,001 descriptions of the Arizona desert ("Pink, threadbare clouds streaked the horizon to the west ... the whole effect was soft and furry, like the markings on the underbelly of a dog"), but just as often wished she'd get on with the story.
She has this to say about the tower block in Partizánske, where she taught English in 1991: "...bald white buildings, each eighteen windows by eighteen windows... at angles to one another, like awkward guests at a party." Her portrayal of Slovakia will interest anyone who has lived here. At times, a bilingual reader is privy to dialogue missed by those who only speak English.
Feisty, free-spirited and being ripped apart by the absence of a mother, Josephine is the book's strongest character. Eva, on her long journey from Slovakia to the US, also comes to emanate a palpable personality, the strength of a woman who has lived through a repressive political system, and snuck out with her dreams intact.
Theobald Moon occupies a majority of the book, however, and remains to the end a collage of eccentricities. Why does he drink his own urine? Why is he forever eating ice-cream, gobstoppers and biscuits? Why and what does he write in his journal? Why does he practice yoga? Why is he so fastidious with his cacti? No unifying element in his character explains his behaviour.
As a result, the novel comes off like a light-hearted desert fairytale. Then Elderkin reaches for the stars and it all comes out from underneath her feet. Sunset Over Chocolate Mountains would have been an excellent book if she had aimed a little higher at the beginning and a little lower in the end.
8. Oct 2001 at 0:00 | Matthew J. Reynolds