Sunnyside by Glen David Gold

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Sunnyside by Glen David Gold

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Sue Magee
Reviewed by Sue Magee
Summary: Writing of range and versatility and a rich and expansive plot. Unfortunately it doesn't quite work although the time reading it isn't entirely wasted.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 576 Date: June 2009
Publisher: Sceptre
ISBN: 978-0340995631

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On November 12th 1916 Charlie Chaplin died – seen by lighthouse keeper Leland Wheeler as his dinghy sinks beneath the waters off Northern California. Wheeler can't quite believe his eyes, but he's sure that it was the Little Tramp in full costume, but all that's left is the battered black derby. On the same day the townspeople of Beaumont, Texas are waiting for the arrival of a train which will bring Charlie Chaplin to the town, but when it arrives there's no Charlie – only Hugo Black, an unprepossessing railway engineer. The disappointed townsfolk respond by setting fire to the train and leaving Black unconscious.

Charlie Chaplin was expected, seen, announced, looked for in more that eight hundred places that day, but he was in fact on the roof of the Los Angeles Athletic Club, having tea and quite oblivious of the fuss that he was causing. A mass delusion has swept the country, bringing the most famous man in the world down from the screen.

Chaplin, Wheeler and Black form the three strands of the story. The Chaplin strand is by far the strongest. I did wonder if this was because I was more familiar with the essentials of the story but on reflection it's because there are elements of genius – and not just Chaplin's – but the Wheeler and Black strands are nowhere near of the same quality.

This is Glen David Gold's first novel since Carter Beats the Devil, published in 2001 and it's easy to see why. Sunnyside is a massive undertaking, covering as it does not only Chaplin and Hollywood (think Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford and Rin Tin Tin) but America and the First World War (including the war in France and the Russian front), Bolshevism and cowboys. And that is the book's problem. It's not just that it's big – it's that the mix is too rich. There's simply too much there, particularly when you take into account Gold's ability to digress from the plot and then to digress from the digression. Some are gems, but I can't help thinking that the book would have been better if he'd been more selective and produced a smaller book – or even used all the material to write more than one book.

It wasn't a comfortable read or an easy read, but perversely it's a book I'm glad I read, if only for the Chaplin story. His analysis of the problems of the man's genius both for Chaplin and those who had to deal with him will stay with me for along time.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to Bookbag.

Interwoven plots can be successful – we've recently enjoyed How to Paint a Dead Man by Sarah Hall.

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