Title: The Choke
Author: Sofie Laguna
Published: September 1st 2017
Publisher: Allen & Unwin
Genres: Fiction, Literary
Rating: 5 stars
A mesmerising, harrowing and ultimately uplifting novel from the 2015 Miles Franklin winner.
Abandoned by her mother as a toddler and only occasionally visited by her volatile father who keeps dangerous secrets, Justine is raised solely by her Pop, an old man tormented by visions of the Burma Railway. Justine finds sanctuary in Pop’s chooks and The Choke, where the banks of the Murray River are so narrow they can almost touch—a place of staggering natural beauty that is both a source of peace and danger. Although Justine doesn’t know it, her father is a menacing criminal and the world she is exposed to is one of great peril to her. She has to make sense of it on her own—and when she eventually does, she knows what she has to do.
A brilliant, haunting novel about a child navigating an often dark and uncaring world of male power, guns and violence, in which grown-ups can’t be trusted and comfort can only be found in nature, The Choke is a compassionate and claustrophobic vision of a child in danger and a society in deep trouble. It once again showcases the Miles Franklin Award-winning author as a writer of rare empathy, originality and blazing talent.
Sofie Laguna, the brilliant Australian author of The Choke, first came to my attention when she won our country’s top literary prize, the Miles Franklin Award in 2015, for The Eye of the Sheep. It is a book I am yet to read but I am hoping to bring it to my book club as my pick, due to the accolades it has received. Sofie Laguna’s latest labour of love is a touching and heart wrenching read of a young girl named Justine Lee, living with her grandfather, in close proximity to the banks of the Murray. The Choke is in reference to a small body of water that lies between two almost adjoining banks. The Choke is the pivotal platform where Justine’s life plays out as she teeters between childhood and adulthood.
Justine Lee was born as a breech baby, who sees the world upside down. She lives a life surrounded by men and is in the sole care of her troubled grandfather, a Burma Railway World War II veteran. Justine’s mother abandoned their family many years ago. Justine’s father Ray is a figure who floats in and out of Justine’s life. Ray’s inability to remove himself from criminal activities has a devastating impact on the impressionable Justine. Justine often retreats from her cruel and violent world in the sanctuary she has built in The Choke, by the banks of the Murray. She also takes solace in her Pop’s chooks, finding these animals offer no brutality or judgement. The Choke is a novel told in two parts, the first outlining 10 year old Justine’s experiences of the world around her, in year 1971. This part of the narrative covers Justine’s turbulent time at school, through to the beautiful friendship she forms with a disabled classmate, to the defining moment of violence Justine’s father unwittingly involves her in. The Choke is ultimately a harrowing coming of age tale. The Choke then moves three years forward and we see the world through the eyes of an adolescent Justine, now aged 13 years old. A little tougher but still naive and vulnerable, Justine’s future again comes under threat as she is taken advantage of by those she sees as worthy of her trust. The repercussions of this incident has lasting damage on a child that has been exposed to far too much in her young life.
I probably mulled over my review for The Choke for far longer than normal. I can see this is warranted, like a handful of reviewers before me, they too have struggled to find the words to do this book and the very talented author Sofie Laguna justice. What I will do is urge you to read this novel and I hope my review will more than tempt you to pick this novel to read. It is one of those books I could easily award 6 stars to, if it was possible.
Sofie Laguna has a rare talent. It is not often that an author can so readily portray the voice of a child, in this case a 10 and 13-year-old girl with such conviction. Laguna’s ability to slot herself so freely into the mind and soul of a child is confounding to say the least. I was absolutely convinced of Justine’s narration from the beginning to the end of this brilliant novel. Laguna is adept in balancing Justine’s world view of a young girl who is perceptive, vulnerable, naive, self-deprecating and giving all the same.
Laguna’s talent in the area of characterisation extends further. In the case of Pop, Justine’s grandfather, Laguna outlines this protagonist with a deft hand. Pop is survivor, a troubled older man with a severe case of PTSD, who struggles to care for himself, let alone love and care for his young granddaughter. His attempts to care for Justine earned both my ire and my respect. His efforts to ensure Justine was not placed in care and stayed with her family had a redeeming quality. There were times when I disagreed completely with his actions but by working to understanding the root of this character, his wartime experiences and the tempestuous years that followed, clearly held impact for this character. Ray, Justine’s criminal father, also earned my wrath early in the piece. He was an odious, violent and unfeeling character, well presented by Laguna but he was a man who deserved all that came to him, a hefty jail sentence. There are a collection of periphery players in this novel, such as Justine’s largely absent aunt, a redneck band of neighbours and cousins and of course, Michael, a gentle soul who shines some light in Justine’s dark world. All are memorable and dimensional figures, drawn carefully by Laguna.
The Choke, in which the title of this book is named after, is almost a character in itself. It commands a strong presence throughout this novel. The sense of place is remarkable in this book. I could easily picture myself on the banks of the Murray, with Justine, seeking out the solace the natural beauty this area. I appreciated the significance The Choke played to the overall turn of events and to the formation of Justine’s character over the progression of the novel.
The Choke was a consuming tale. There were times I held my breath, turned my eyes away from the book and felt my heart warm completely. I made sure I grabbed firmly onto moments of hope, while simultaneously found myself shuddering at the treatment of a young girl who was forced to confront a cruel and unforgiving world, far too soon. Sofie Laguna is an author with extraordinary storytelling abilities, her dexterity in bringing to life a dysfunctional working class family’s trials and tribulations from the 1970’s, with specific focus on a young girl’s haunting experiences with such a commanding force is simply exceptional.
The Choke by Sofie Laguna is published on September 1st 2017 by Allen & Unwin. Details on how to purchase the book can be found here.
To learn more about the author of The Choke, Sofie Laguna, visit here.
*I wish to thank Allen & Unwin for providing me with a free copy of this book for review purposes.