Grove Press
Grove Press
Grove Press

Sunset Over Chocolate Mountains

by Susan Elderkin

“Elderkin has crafted a complex, heartbreaking tale, entwining the lives of quirky characters in an improbable but compelling narrative illustrating the agonizing potential of love to cause more pain than pleasure. . . . A promising debut.” –Publishers Weekly

  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 320
  • Publication Date May 22, 2001
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-3799-9
  • Dimensions 5.5" x 8.25"
  • US List Price $13.00

About The Book

Theobald Moon lives in a lonely corner of the Arizona desert tending his spectacular cactus garden, his tiny mobile home, and his astounding appetite. He has fled a stifled, cardigan-and-tea-cozy life in south London for this unfamiliar country and is raising Josephine, who has known no other life than their cheerful yet isolated American one. But when a jangling ice-cream truck finds its way into the desert carrying two ill-fated lovers–one a pregnant Slovakian shoemaker and the other a mysterious ice-cream man–it throws Theo and Josie’s careful lives into a chaotic state. Fantastic upheaval ensues, and an inspired redemption.
Sunset Over Chocolate Mountains is innovative and accessible, funny and profound, Elderkin’s story explores love and responsibility, and the joys and fears those emotions inspire. It is a rare and tantalizing first novel.

Tags Literary


“A superior work . . . rich, strange and unclassifiable.” –The Times (London)

“Startlingly observant. . . . It’s like Muriel Spark rewritten by Gunter Grass.” –Bookforum

“Elderkin has crafted a complex, heartbreaking tale, entwining the lives of quirky characters in an improbable but compelling narrative illustrating the agonizing potential of love to cause more pain than pleasure. . . . A promising debut.” –Publishers Weekly

“Impressive . . . rife with imagery and eccentricity . . . Elderkin’s talent and ambition are obvious.” –Kirkus Reviews

“Serendipitous. . . . The pleasures of Elderkin’s book–its confident prose style, well-developed appreciation of the absurd, and Lawrentian moments in the desert–keep the show on the road, and the two narratives eventually converge in a satisfying clinch. . . . Elderkin pulls the whimsy up short with a shocking denouement.” –The Saturday Independent

“Full of delightful moments . . . a beautiful, touching story.” –The Bookseller

“A wacky, lyrical debut novel.” –Elle (London)

“These fanciful misfits curled their little tendrils around my semi-resistant heart. . . . A first-rate writer.” –The Observer (London)

“Marvelous . . . A fresh and wonderful take on the American West by a remarkably talented storyteller with a heart as big as the Arizona desert.” –Howard Frank Mosher

“In the seductive beauty of its language and its narrative skill, Sunset Over Chocolate Mountains is outstanding. . . . A hugely original, mesmerizing and memorable read.”
The Hill


Winner of the Betty Trask Award



When he moved to Arizona and set up home amongst the giant saguaros of the Sonoran Desert, Theobald Moon developed the habit of getting up early in the morning, peeing in a glass, and knocking it back in a few quick gulps while it was still warm and fresh. He felt it running sharply over the back of his throat, spiralling the length of his oesophagus, and flushing out the ducts and cavities of his small intestine like a jet of scouring fluid. He emitted any gases with a small and perfectly rounded burp.
He had heard it said that people shrink when confined to small places and expand when let out in the wilds. Out in the vastness of the desert, with nothing between him and the horizon but the thin wands of ocotillo stranded in the motionless air like seaweed held up by the sea, there was certainly room to fill. Never one to ignore the slightest rumble or whine of his sizeable belly, Theobald indulged his every whim and fancy.

He listened for the plaintive cries at night, scrambling out of bed at the slightest hint that somewhere, somehow, in the dark deep red caverns of his stomach, a hollow corner had not been adequately filled. He was a master of snack concoction, of putting together unlikely sandwiches at midnight. Sugary, salty, peppery, pickled. He matched and mismatched, let his imagination go. There was no one else to see, after all.

This is not to say that he was without vanity. Discarding the tanktops and t-shirts and corduroys he’d brought in a peeling leather suitcase from England, he took to dressing in voluminous white drawstring trousers and shirts that gave him the appearance, despite his size, of something that could be wafted by the breeze. Rolled along like a ball of tumbleweed. Twenty-two stone and counting, he glided up and down the wooden steps of his mobile home as if he were royalty, balancing a crown on his head.

The piece of land on which he settled was set back from the main road down a rutted dirt track bordered by mesquite trees and clumps of cholla cacti. Before him was the flat desert floor, the tall, stately stems of the saguaro cacti standing erect and motionless on its surface. At dawn the saguaros appeared to Theobald Moon to be facing east, patiently waiting for the first sharp blade of morning light to reach out from behind the house and slice their tops off like breakfast eggs, surprising them from their grey-green sleep and causing a band of thick golden yolk to slip extravagantly down their sides. But by early evening, without anyone noticing, they had swivelled round to face west, in order, perhaps, to watch the kaleidoscopic performance staged by the setting sun as it streaked the sky with yellows and oranges and fiery blood-reds from behind the uneven line of the mountains.

After the initial hypothesising about why he had come and whether or not he was mad or just typically English, the locals thought of him only when they drove past in their battered pickups and happened to catch a glimpse of what looked like a cloud or the sail of a yacht drifting behind the tall mast of a saguaro. He remained in their minds simply an oddity, an overly large Englishman whose pale, almost hairless skin gleamed like a buttered bird plucked and trussed for the oven and then turned a juicy pink as soon as he exposed himself to the sun.

He had brought with him a number of books. A Manual for Living Comfortably in the Cosmos, Culpeper’s Herbal Remedies, Awaken Healing Energy through the Tao, Yoga for Beginners and Meditation for Great Minds. He was still a little shy of their titles, and took off the jackets to use them as bookmarks – fearful, even here, of someone catching him reading them. He kept them on a shelf above his bed.

In a second-hand book warehouse on E. Speedway Blvd he picked up copies of Discover the Sonoran Desert and Make the Desert Bloom! and immediately set about digging his one-acre plot. Lured by a vision of himself surrounded by swathes of brightly coloured flowers, perhaps even with a Hawaiian-style necklace around his neck, he ordered seeds from an English garden catalogue which promised delivery anywhere in the world. Geraniums, rambling roses, hollyhocks. It would be a real cottage garden, a couple of beds each side of his front door so that the taller plants could climb up around the windows. Michaelmas daisies, red-hot pokers. Sunflowers.

Around the back of his house, he would leave the natural flora and fauna to its own devices – the sharp-edged clumps of sagebrush and lacy-leaved creosote which, after all, had been here longer than him. In the front, he’d develop a proper cactus garden, filled with different varieties. At Pleasant Desert on Tanque Verde he picked out the prickly pears with the most appealing names – Porcupine, Long-spined, Pancake – and sunk them into the ground wearing a pair of washing-up gloves to avoid getting into an unpleasant scrap with their spines. He bought a Strawberry Hedgehog and a Claretcup Hedgehog, a Creeping Devil Chirinola and a Beavertail cactus. He bought two young desert willows in five-gallon containers to provide shade each side of the house, realising as he did so that he appeared to be planting with an eye to the future. So what? he retorted brusquely to himself. Who says I won’t stay here for ever? And to prove to himself that he wasn’t afraid of the thought he asked the attendant to uproot a sizeable century plant which, according to the label, would send up one magnificent long-stemmed flower in approximately forty-five years’ time and then, majestically, expire. We’ll see who goes first, he thought.

He asked Jersey to help him uproot a group of jumping cholla he had seen from Highway 10, the evening light ensnared on their spines like goldfish in a net, but Jersey would have none of it.

“I ain’t taking on no cholla, no sir, not me. Get cut to shreds. And in any case they’re the property of the Federal Government, and it would be cactus rustlin”.

“We’ll do it at night. No one will see.” Theo was impressed to find himself taking such a devil-may-care stance.

“I said I ain’t taking on no cholla.”

Rubbing his hand over the blond bristles on his chin, Jersey leant forward and told the Englishman about a local Tucson man who had dared to mess with a saguaro after an evening of propping up the bars. –Used it for rifle practice, he did, sir, three bullets in its trunk, and the saguaro keeled over and squashed the life clean out his lungs. Jersey let out a low, sobering whistle. –I tell you, Mr Moon, them cactus ain’t as stupid as they look.

At least Theo was fortunate enough to have two saguaros on his lot already–beautiful, ancient specimens some thirty foot high, their hollow trunks laced with holes pecked out by gila woodpeckers, turning them into whistling flutes whenever the wind rushed down. It was an eerie sound – more like the music of the spheres, thought Theo, than anything you’d expect to hear on Earth. He liked to join in as he tended his garden, his off-key, meandering warbling blending with the natural accompaniment in a way that made him feel part of things.

Sooner or later, a maddened woodpecker would poke its head out of a hole and pierce the air with a sharp hee-hee-hee and a sudden red flash of its wings.

The hollyhocks, winter jasmine and red-hot pokers never made it beyond the seedling stage. But his cacti flourished. By the time his first spring came round, Theobald Moon walked out amidst a mass of brazen, squabbling pinks and purples and yellows, the petals thick and waxy as if they were made of plastic. He had to watch his ankles as he stepped between the low-growing spikes, and it took all his willpower to resist stroking the furry-looking down on the pincushion cacti. Within a month the husks of large, half-eaten fruits lay rotting on the ground, heady with the smell of fermenting nectar and crawling with alarmingly big, drunken black ants.

Only one part of his plot was left unplanted. A little area in the middle of the cactus garden, which he cleared of stones and tufts of prickly grass until there was enough space to stretch out his arms and spin without snagging the tips of his fingers. Taking off his shirt and hitching up his trousers, retying the drawstring above the swell of his stomach, Theobald Moon walked out here every morning before breakfast, spread out his sticky mat, and soaked up the night’s coolness from the hard, dusty ground, solid as concrete beneath his back. Closing his eyes, he allowed the first milky rays of sun to play spiders on his face. He breathed in, breathed out, breathed in, breathed out. He was like a chuckwalla, heating itself up for the day.

In the space of a year he developed a considerable repertoire. He could do the Sun Salute, the Spinal Twist, the Crescent Moon and the Crow, the Foetus and the Forward Bend, the Alternate Nostril Breath and the Shining Head Breath. His favourite was the Lion: heels tucked under buttocks and hands on knees with fingers splayed out like claws, mouth stretched wide baring glistening bubbles around his teeth, tongue reaching for the dimple on his chin, eyes bulging and glowering at the sky. He braced himself, tensed arms and jaw and fingers, then shot the air from his lungs with a fearful Ha! that split the silence of the early morning, slammed up against the mountains to the west and somersaulted into the air like an acrobat.

Sometimes he snatched a quick look at the book to check he was doing it right, then dashed back into position.

Reading Group Guide

Meet Theobald Moon – eccentric English expatriate, compulsive overeater, and doting father to young Josephine. We encounter the Moons leading a contented, solitary life in their own remote corner of the Arizona desert. But things weren’t always so solitary” – Theo’s life was once turned upside down when a couple of Slovakian wanderers turned up in his patch of desert, changing his existence forever. And now their contentment once again is threatened by Josephine’s need to know about the secrets of her father’s past, and her own. With an engagingly eccentric cast of characters, and far-flung settings ranging from a Slovakian shoe factory to the Arizona desert, Betty Trask award-winning author Susan Elderkin weaves a touching and enchanted story about finding love, happiness, and belonging, even in the most unlikely of places.

Questions For Discussion

1. Why do you suppose the author chose Arizona for the novel’s setting? Consider the various ways the desert is described. Which are positive? Which are negative? What role does it play for each character, and what relationship do they have with their surroundings (pp.88-89)? Do their relationships to the desert surroundings evolve throughout the story?

2. Consider the novel’s narrative structure. Why do you think the author chose to have Josie narrate from the first-person point of view, while both Theo and Eva’s stories are told from the third-person point of view? Is Elderkin saying something about the contrasts between childhood and adulthood? About dreams versus reality, or better yet, innocence versus experience?

3. When Theo is telling Josie a story, he makes the statement “Little girls don’t go very far” (p. 13). Consider this statement, both literally and figuratively, in light of what happens to Josie and Eva, the main female characters in this story. Is it true of Josie? Is it true of Josie’s mother, Eva?

4. Theo is described as being extremely overweight owing to his compulsive overeating. Are food and eating a substitute for something else missing in his life (pp. 28-30)? Now consider that all of Theo’s pet names for Josie are the names of foods: Sugar Pie, Jell-O, etc. What correlation between food and affection does this point out? Is it consonant with Theo’s general attitudes about food and the role it plays for him?”

5. Sometimes role reversal is apparent in the relationship between Josie and her father. Consider the passage when Theo wakes Josie up in the middle of the night (pp. 7-8). In what ways is Josie like the adult and Theo like the child? What about when Theo drops Josie off for her first day of school (pp. 141-144). What other examples can you find in the novel? Does their relationship change and mature throughout the story?”

6. Josie’s background is unusual, but she’s typical when it comes to teenage rebellion. What provokes this in her? What are Theo’s reactions to this change in his daughter? What’s the end result of Josie’s rebellion? How does she react to this experience?

7. The notions of belonging and being an outsider are both important in the story, and the characters find belonging in the very places where they were initially outsiders. Talk about the ways in which Theo is an outsider and where he comes to belong. What about Jersey (p. 201)? And Josie?

8. Think about Theo’s characteristics as an adult. Now, imagine what you think he was like as a child and describe him. What do you think Josie will be like as an adult, compared with how she is as a child?

9. The reader gets occasional discomforting glimpses of Theo’s relationship with his own mother (p.114) and his Auntie Drew (p.124). How would you characterize these relationships? Are they healthy? How is Theo’s relationship with his own daughter different from the ones he had with his older relatives?

10. Theo’s explorations of spirituality lead him to the statement that “you get what you want; what you think you deserve” from the universe (p. 166). What do you think Theo wants from the universe? When does Theo finally become aware of what he wants? Does he get it? What about the other characters’what do they deserve, and do they get it?

11. Tibor is first introduced as a Romany, or gypsy”a group of wanderers generally regarded as notoriously unreliable and untrustworthy. Although he is not Romany, does the description fit him? How is Tibor typically Romany?

12. Consider how the statement””If you don’t know somebody’s past, you will not know their future” (p. 111)”applies to each of the characters in the story. In what ways is the statement especially relevant to both Josie and Tibor?

13. As the novel points out,” “The problem with solitude . . . is that when you’re alone, you get used to being alone. But as soon as the solitude is broken, even if only for a moment, you become lonely all over again” (p. 194). When, and by whom, is Theo’s solitude broken? What happens as a result of this intrusion? Does Theo welcome it?

14. Various kinds of love are very important in the story. There’s a spin on love at first sight when Eva and Tibor first meet (p. 39), a conventional romantic-love story between Jersey and Cindy, Theo’s search to find someone to love, and the quest for self-love that both Theo and Josie undertake. Talk about the ways that some of these love stories are conventional or unconventional and how each kind of love affects the lives of the characters it touches.

For Further Reading

About a Boy, Nick Hornby; The Beet Queen, Louise Erdrich; The Bean Trees, Barbara Kingsolver; Bastard Out of Carolina, Dorothy Allison; She’s Come Undone, Wally Lamb; A Confederacy of Dunces, John Kennedy Toole; A Yellow Raft in Blue Water, Michael Dorris; Geek Love, Katherine Dunn; The Adrian Mole Diaries, Sue Townsend; The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, Sherman Alexie; Peace Like a River, Leif Enger