Elderkin, Susan 1968-
ELDERKIN, Susan 1968-
Home—London, England. Agent—Clare Alexander, Gillon Aitken Assoc., 29 Fernshaw Rd., London SW10 0TG, England.
Novelist, freelance journalist, and teacher of creative writing. Worked variously as an ice-cream seller and as an English teacher in a Slovakian shoe factory.
Society of Authors, PEN.
Betty Trask Award for first novel, 2000, for Sunset over Chocolate Mountains; named one of Granta magazine's Twenty Best Young British Novelists of the decade, 2003.
Sunset over Chocolate Mountains, Atlantic Monthly Press (New York, NY), 2000.
The Voices, Grove Press (New York, NY), 2003.
WORK IN PROGRESS:
A screenplay of Sunset over Chocolate Mountains; a third novel.
British writer Susan Elderkin wanted to tell stories since before she could write. A freelance journalist-turned-novelist, her first novel, Sunset over Chocolate Mountains, is set in the Arizona desert, where obese, retiring Theobald Moon has escaped after the death of his mother. Exploring themes of love and pain, it is a dark story filled with eccentric characters. According to reviewers, the most notable aspects of the book are Elderkin's richly descriptive writing and acute sense of place.
Theobald Moon leaves his native Great Britain to live in a mobile home, plant a cactus garden, eat candy, and practice yoga in the desert. He also drinks a glass of his own urine every morning. Despite his hermetic habits, Moon finds new friends, including the cowboy Jersey, who teaches him how to survive in the desert. A young couple from Slovakia, a shoemaker named Eva and her fugitive-murderer lover Tibor, are traveling through the area when their ice-cream truck breaks down, and they become Theobald's new neighbors. Jumping forward in time, we find Theobald bringing up a young daughter, Josie. As the girl grows up, her—and our—need to know about her origins creates the dramatic tension.
Reviewers hailed the novel as the work of a skilled new writer, although critics commented on the bleakness of much of the tale. Cheryl L. Conway commented in Library Journal that the novel "contains elements of mystery and beauty as well as cruelty and death." She concluded, "while well written, it is a relentlessly grim tale, and the ending does not satisfy." In the London Observer, Anna Shapiro observed that Sunset over Chocolate Mountain is "excellently written, but not exactly literature" and credited the author with "entertaining and moving" readers with a combination of "sticky love and harsh callousness." A Publishers Weekly reviewer called the book a "beguiling and unsettling tale" and compared Moon to the hero of A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. Booklist's Grace Fill felt the "captivating" story is "well written with memorable characters" and warned of "an unexpected chilling conclusion."
Critics with special praise for the book's imaginative descriptions included a Kirkus Reviews writer, who remarked that the novel is "impressive if overly self-conscious …rife with imagery and eccentricity." And in Visage online, Umbereen Beg Mirza enjoyed the book as "a breath of fresh air." Mirza concluded, "Elderkin's forte is not her plot …but her prose. This is some of the best new writing around."
Elderkin's second novel, The Voices, is also set in a remote desert location—this time the blood-red landscape of the Australian bush. It tells the story of a thirteen-year-old boy, Billy Saint, growing up in a harsh outback community. Alienated from his mother Crystal, a woman who considers herself "too sexy" to be living in such a remote location, and his father, Stan, who is more interested in the underbellies of his classic cars than his son, Billy looks to the landscape, and the local Aborigines for the meaning he senses is missing from his life. One day he hears the haunting song of an Aboriginal girl which tugs at something deep inside him—something larger and more powerful than himself. She has "sung Billy up," and he is destined to love her forever.
In an Alice Springs hospital ten years later, we find Billy recovering from gruesome wounds of a mysterious origin. Only Cecily, the Aboriginal nurse, understands the significance of these wounds, and what Billy means by the 'voices' he hears in his head. What unravels is a mesmerising account of the relationship between a man, the land he loves, and the spirits of the land that are struggling to be heard before it is too late. Stevie Davies, in an Independent review, called The Voices "a page-turner partly because we are never sure where we are, but we want to know, or what she is going to do next. For sheer narrative invention and wanton brio, [Elderkin] is without an equal."
Elderkin told CA: "Both my novels so far have started with place. In my early twenties I lived for a while in Los Angeles, and from there I discovered the deserts of the American southwest. One day I lay on my back on a granite boulder in Joshua Tree National [Park], looking up and the extraordinary expanse of clear blue sky that unravelled down to the horizon in every direction, and knew that the desert had got under my skin. I promised myself I would come back one day and write about it.
"The story of The Voices came to me while on the legendary Australian train, the Ghan express, which goes from Adelaide in the south right into the heart of Australia at Alice Springs. I had heard about the Aboriginal tradition whereby women sang up the man they wanted, casting a sort of spell on him that hooked him forever. Later, during the same trip, I travelled around the Kimberley—harsh, remote cattle station country right up in the northwest of Australia, where not even many Australians go. Here the heat in the dry season builds and builds toward a wet season, when torrential rains come down so fast that the rivers flood and cut communities off for months. The population of the Kimberley is fifty percent Aboriginal, but I found that even here Aboriginal traditions were no longer passed down any more—the younger generations were often not interested, wanting to live like the white Australians, and shunning the old ways.
"I find myself drawn to these remote landscapes because they are places where you become very aware of the thin line between life and death, which fine-tunes your sensibilities and makes every decision you make vital. The human inhabitants of these places tend to have adapted to the difficult climactic conditions in much the same way as plants do—they are tough-skinned, they are loners, they are sometimes prickly and distorted, and above all they are acutely tuned in to the natural elements around them. This sensitivity gives rise to a heightened spiritual sense, opening up a world where other forces operate. City people have lost their connection with this sense of the spiritual—by which I mean being in touch with our instinctive, animal natures rather than any ritualised, formal religion. This is the landscape within which I like to work. It gives me room to let my imagination go, and to make occasional forays into the realm of the fantastic."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Booklist, May 1, 2000, Grace Fill, review of Sunset over Chocolate Mountains, p. 1650.
Independent (London, England), 31 May 2003, Stevie Davies, review of The Voices.
Kirkus Reviews, May 1, 2000, review of Sunset over Chocolate Mountains, p. 580; September 1, 2003, review of The Voices, p. 1089.
Library Journal, June 1, 2000, Cheryl L. Conway, review of Sunset over Chocolate Mountains, p. 196.
Observer, March 12, 2000, Anna Shapiro, review of Sunset over Chocolate Mountains.
Publishers Weekly, May 29, 2000, review of Sunset over Chocolate Mountains, p. 49.
Spectator, June 7, 2003, Miranda France, review of The Voices, p. 37.
Times Literary Supplement, June 20, 2003, review of The Voices, p. 26.
Visage,http://visagepk.com/ (April 29, 2003), Umbereen Beg Mirza, review of Sunset over Chocolate Mountains.