- Johnny Ring
Susan Elderkin was born in 1968 and grew up in Leatherhead, Surrey.
She studied English at Cambridge University and later, Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia with tutors Malcolm Bradbury and Rose Tremain, for which she was awarded that year's Curtis Brown scholarship. She works as a freelance journalist and teaches Creative Writing at Manchester University.
Her first novel, Sunset Over Chocolate Mountains (2000), tells the story of Theobald Moon, an English emigré in the Arizona desert, who brings up his daughter Josie on fairy-tales and ice-cream, while all the time concealing a terrible secret. It won a Betty Trask Award and was published in nine countries. The following year she was listed as one of twenty-one 'Orange Futures' women writers for the twenty-first century.
Her second novel, The Voices (2003) - again very much inspired by a remote, desert landscape - is set in Western Australia, and is the haunting tale of Billy Saint, a white boy who is 'sung up' by an Aboriginal spirit child and made to love her for ever. It was shortlisted for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award and the Ondaatje Prize, in 2005.
In 2003, Susan Elderkin was named by Granta magazine as one of twenty 'Best of Young British Novelists'. She is a bibliotherapist at The School of Life and is currently writing a book called The Novel Cure with fellow therapist Ella Berthoud which will prescribe novels to read to aid in various ailments.
She currently lives in London, but escapes to remote regions of the world whenever she can.
Susan Elderkin’s two novels reveal the author’s interest in ghosts, deserts and secrets.
These books have a whimsical and winsome quality, a light sense of humour, and settings far from the known world of the United Kingdom, which, being so removed, are therefore ripe for being romanticised. All of which is, when packaged in the right way and sold as sweet fictions, with just enough sour to take the edge off the sentimentality, likely to appeal to those readers who seek some kind of dreamy enchantment from the novel form.
There is something of the book club to Elderkin’s two novels then; it is almost as if they have been designed to be read by weekly gatherings of enthusiastic readers eager to discuss motive and characterisation, plot and narrative momentum, the predictability (or otherwise) of certain events in the story, and the satisfactions of the way the stories are (or are not) resolved. If you believe with Keats, that ‘beauty is truth and truth beauty’, then there will be something in Elderkin’s novels for you.
Sunset Over Chocolate Mountains (2000), Elderkin’s debut, which won her a place on the Granta Best of Young British Novelist’s List of 2003, is the tale of Theobold Moon, a man who knocks back his own pee for breakfast. Moon is a thirty-four-year-old overweight Englishman, who, following his mother’s recent death, is in need of a change. He decides to move to the Arizona desert. There, he buys a plot of land and a mobile home. He sets about practising Yoga and working on his garden desert. Moon is reminiscent of other loners in fiction: William Trevor’s Mr Hilditch in Felicia’s Journey and John Fowles’ Fredrick in The Collector come to mind. Theobold is withdrawn and awkward, prone to acts of kindness which are sudden, misplaced and unctuous. He is also endearing and amiable, something of a bumbling comic soul; and yet, as the story moves on, he becomes less and less appealing as his out of balance psychology begins to creep through the gaps. Elderkin uses the third person to tell Moon’s story, but allows Josie, Moon’s daughter, to narrate hers.
Josie grows up throughout the novel, from loving four-year-old to sullen teen. We watch the ordered haven which Moon creates, disappear into disaffection as his daughter moves towards adolescence; Josie falls out of love with the fairytale world in which she lives and becomes frustrated at her father’s continued rebuttal of questions about her dead mother.
Josie’s narration is one of the aspects of Sunset Over Chocolate Mountains guaranteed to become the first topic for book group discussion. When we first see her at the age of four, Josie tells her story in an intelligent, wry adult voice. Whilst, at first, this seems an odd decision, it soon stops feeling incongruous. The point being made, it seems, is that while Theobold remains lost in childlike innocence, unable to truly occupy space in the world of the real and accept his own history, Josie is rational, with wisdom beyond her years. Whether or not readers will enjoy this aspect of the book’s style, will depend on whether they receive it as twee or clever.
Elderkin’s debut is also the story of Slovakian shoe factory worker Eva Ligocka and her lover Tibor, an ice-cream seller of indeterminate nationality, who together flee Europe for the USA and a new beginning. Elderkin switches between the different parts of the novel, counterpoising the intense heat of the desert with the winter snowscapes of Eastern Europe with skill, gradually establishing links between the narratives and posing a number of questions which hang unresolved until the dark conclusion. Sunset Over Chocolate Mountains has charm and imagination, yet there is something schematic about its heart, almost as if the author has learnt how to draw one and colour it in, but doesn’t know how to make it appear to be any more than a copy of the real thing.
Elderkin’s second novel, The Voices (2003), is an elegy for a lost world, a hymn to an Aboriginal Australia stripped of life, culture, and its sense of self. Set in the blood-red desert of the Kimberley, it is the tale of Billy Saint, a young boy fascinated by kangaroos who is attuned to the spirit of the land, where he hears the song of an Aboriginal girl calling him, drawing him in, ‘singing him up’, making him love her forever. We see him years later, with horrible injuries, attempting to explain himself to the nurses and doctors; it is his haunting that will be central to the novel. The Voices is aptly titled, given that it is a chorus, a play of disparate identities, a multiplicity of viewpoints involving a vocal wind, loquacious spirits, mineworkers, swaggering unreconstructed Ozzie males, gullible tourists and guides with their eye on the fast buck.
The most impressive aspect of The Voices, though, is Elderkin’s description of landscape:
Mid-afternoon in the desert. A big, fierce sun crashes down. The red earth is strewn with the white spots of sun-bleached stones and the black spots of their shadows. All day the heat has built and built as if pumped by a vast, ancient heart, recycling an age-old sadness with its dull, leaden-templed beat. The horizon is delirious with heat, beset by a violent shimmer.
Only an Australian could say whether Elderkin has truly achieved an accurate rendering of this landscape or not, but it has, at least, the feel of authenticity. It is the seductive and sensual evocation of an environment that can be harsh and enticing, which, in fact, is what sustains interest, when all the voices in this novel threaten to become a maddening cacophony. Some of the strongest parts of The Voices are the domestic scenes in Billy’s family home, and those which feature later, when, as an adult, he develops an oddly nonphysical relationship with a single mother. We are left wanting more of this, and perhaps a little less of the attempt to capture the pain of Australia’s past; The Voices suffers, at times, from feeling like a thesis, a demonstration of an argument, for then its characters – who are well drawn – suffer, burdened as they are with representative weight.
Perhaps there is another problem. In attempting to appropriate the aboriginal experience for the purpose of a fiction which has no apparent political agenda and which therefore exists as nothing more than a means of delighting a readership drawn by the borrowed pain of a subjugated people, you can’t help but wonder whether it is the job of the novelist to do this. Perhaps it is, but not one from Surrey. Susan Elderkin has a gift for structure and character, though, for a language which some readers will find a little too rich, but others will perceive as beautiful and evocative.
Garan Holcombe, 2013