There are many reasons why I wanted to read Sofie Laguna’s latest book The choke. Firstly, I was inspired by a very engaging author conversation I attended late last year. Secondly, she won the Miles Franklin with her previous book The eye of the sheep (which I still haven’t read). Thirdly, its setting, the Murray River, is one of my favourite parts of Australia. For these and other reasons, I finally slotted it in this month, despite my growing backlog of review copies, and I’m glad I did. It’s an engrossing, moving read.
The novel is divided into two parts, the first set in 1971 when its first person protagonist Justine is 10 years old, and the second set three years later when she is thirteen years old and starting high school. It’s an effective structure. The first part sets up Justine and her physically and emotionally impoverished situation. She lives with her war-traumatised grandfather Pop on a struggling farm on the banks of the Murray. Her mother is long gone, and her father returns erratically. She has regular contact with her two older half-brothers who live nearby with her father’s first wife. Pop loves Justine, but he does not have the wisdom or emotional resources to guide – or even provide for – her as she needs. She is undernourished and poorly groomed. We are therefore unsurprised when Part 2 unfolds the way it does.
Now, I am a little cautious about first person narratives. It’s not that I don’t like them. In fact they can be highly engaging, but it did seem, for a while at least, that first person was becoming the voice du jour. However, Laguna’s choice here is inspired. She’s known for her ability to write young people and it’s well demonstrated here. Telling the story in Justine’s voice enables her to show Justine’s situation, without resorting to telling, which can so easily turn to moralising. Justine is the perfect naive narrator. She can only describe and explain the world as she knows it, so we readers must read between the lines to work out what is really going on. We work out, for example, that she is dyslexic by the way she describes her inability to read. We learn about the quality (often poor) of the relationships that surround her through her observations.
When I looked at [half-brother] Steve it was as if there was a ditch all around him too wide to jump. If you shone a torch into it, you’d never see the bottom. Steve couldn’t get across by himself; it was only Dad who could help him.
She might not understand the world – and it is this, along with her loneliness, which drives the crisis when it comes – but she’s attuned to the feelings between people.
One of the reasons this book so engaged me, in fact, is that it’s all about character. In the conversation we attended, Laguna said a couple of things about this. She said that it’s the characters and the tensions between and within them that drive the narrative and that character IS the plot.
“I got it wrong from the start”
So, who are these characters who drive the narrative? Justine is the main one, of course. She tells us that she was a breech birth – “I thought that was the right way to come out.” She understands by this that she “wrong from the start”, and she blames herself for her mother’s departure three years later. Her sense of being wrong – and feeling somehow responsible – is a recurring refrain in the novel. The other characters – her Pop, her sometimes-present father Ray, her mostly absent but significant aunt Rita, her friend Michael, her half-brothers, and the similarly dysfunctional neighbouring Worlleys – are all seen through her eyes. It is the tensions, stated and unstated, between them and their impact on her, that drive the narrative and the decisions she makes.
As well as a coming-of-age story, The choke is also a classic outsider story. Part one sets up Justine’s outsiderness, and chronicles, among other things, the friendship that develops between her and another outsider at school, Michael, who is taunted, bullied, because of his physical disability. Justine doesn’t have the words, but his disability appears to be cerebral palsy. The end of this friendship with Michael’s departure for the city ends Part One. This friendship plays multiple roles in the narrative. It helps develop Justine’s character. Her decision to stand up for Michael, having earlier wanted nothing to do with him, not only brings her a friend and marks her outsiderness from the cohort, but also shows her own sense of social justice. However, this friendship also exposes her low self-expectations and further reveals her neglect, because Michael’s family is a “normal” middle-class family. There’s a mum and dad, two kids, a proper house, regular meals and proper care. Justine is intitially embarrassed by the gap between their lives and hers, but when Michael eventually visits her home, she discovers he loves visiting it. He loves, for example, the chooks, Cockyboy and the Isa Browns.
By the time Part Two starts, her father Ray is in jail and Justine is starting high school. With Michael gone, she’s isolated at school and, while loved at home, continues to be neglected. The crisis is revenge-driven for something her father had done, but Justine, as the vulnerable female, is, of course, the target. It’s a gut-wrenching story of damage, neglect, abuse and, yes, also just simple misguidedness. Her Pop means well but is ill-equipped for the caring role thrust upon him. In the end, the story is also one of a failure of people and systems – including education – to identify Justine’s real situation.
And then there’s “the choke” of the title. I don’t always discuss a book’s title, particularly given that the author doesn’t always have last say on this, but for this book it’s highly relevant:
Down at The Choke the river pushed its way between the banks. The water knew the way it wanted to go. Past our hideouts, past our ring of stones, past the red gums leaning close enough to touch – it flowed forward all the way to the sea.
The “choke”, then, is a bottleneck in the river, a place, Justine says elsewhere, “where it would push through and keep going”. It is a physical place (based on the actual Barmah Choke) and a metaphorical one. Physically, it is a place of tranquility, of respite, for Justine. However, it also symbolises the things that threaten to “choke” her life, while at the same time hinting at hope, at the possibility of pushing through.
The choke is a book written by someone who knows exactly what she is doing. As I flipped through it to write this post, I noticed again and again the crumbs laid for us, the signs, in other words, that prepare the groundwork for what comes later. There is nothing wasted here. It is a grim story, but it is enlivened by its resilient young protagonist who finds the resources within herself to “push through” when life threatens to overwhelm. It may not have been shortlisted for the Stella Prize but I’m glad I decided to read it.