You won’t find this brilliant novel a comfortable read but it is an enlightening one and you will be better for the experience. The Choke is a poignant account of a young girl, Justine, growing up in early 70s rural Australia – a poverty ridden and brutally harsh environment. Laguna’s taut prose is both punchy and elegant and her ability to get under the skin of her characters, particularly the children here, opening up their world view to the reader, is exceptional. The Choke is an immersive and emotionally absorbing read.

This is ten-year-old Justine’s story but it is overshadowed by her sometimes present father, Ray, and the ghosts of the past. Much of Justine’s story is impacted by events she has no part in but that come back on her anyway; she is at times collateral damage, her hurt an unseen consequence of other people’s actions. Early in The Choke Justine and her brothers, Kirk and Steve, are awaiting the return of their father. Justine and, particularly, the boys are so desperate for their father’s approval that they are prepared to forgive the fact that he deserted them and that he has broken all of his promises. Ray is a criminal (unspecified), he is a man they fear as much as respect but they love him and crave some sign of his love for them, however twisted it may be. From his arrival forward he will flit in and out of the their lives over the coming months until he is arrested and gaoled for a serious offence. As Ray rolls into town he saves Justine from a sexual assault by an older boy, Jamie, beating the boy severely. Soon Kirk is boasting that his father will teach him to shoot. The children’s complex relationship with their errant father is one of the themes in Laguna’s novel, a beautiful observation on the nature of children’s perception of and need for the adults around them. The boys have their mother, Relle, but Justine was abandoned by both parents, Donna left years ago too, she was supposed to be visiting her sister but never arrived. Justine was taken in by her grandfather, Pop, after he found her in his garden. They live near Echuca on the Murray River, north of Melbourne. This is 1971, the nation is scarred by the Vietnam war and that brings back terrifying memories for Pop. He was captured by the Japanese during the Second World War and worked on the Burma to Siam railway (the death railway):

“We were the living dead.”

Pop has never come to terms with the trauma of war, suffering from PTSD he often wakes haunted by memory. His wife died at Ballarat hospital in 1952 and, although he cares, is he really suited to looking after a ten-year-old girl, little Jussy?

The novel opens with the three children playing, rough housing, Steve and Kirk threaten Justine with catapults, they fight and knock down each other’s makeshift dens. The boys exclude Justine; she’s a girl and too young (although Steve is only one year older). The boys eat with Pop and Justine, eggs, always eggs (it’s all they have). This night Pop tells them that their father is coming home. The family used to be close to their neighbours, shared evenings by the caravans and the campfire, until one night a row soured the relationship between the Warlleys and the Lees, they are now ‘at war’.

As her father’s visit gets closer we see Justine at school. In the classroom Mrs Turning sets the children an exercise, Justine can’t do it, she is accused of cheating, of copying from her friend. No one has time to figure out why Justine struggles so much at school, the teacher punishes her for her failure. She does manage to forge a friendship with Michael, a boy with cerebral palsy, the only one to understand that Justine has a problem, she is dyslexic. Justine reads words but they make no sense, they are a cruel joke, this at the gate to her secondary school: “erad ot wonk” (dare to know). Justine is bullied, the older boys taunt her. Then Ray arrives and prevents Jamie Warlley assaulting her but, of course, it’s not the end of her suffering. Needless to say it isn’t long before Ray let’s them all down again, he winds up in gaol. Harsh as things are, Justine will face a crisis that could become an opportunity for her to stand up for herself, to establish herself as a person with her own distinct identity.

This is a rites of passage, a coming of age, a story of self-preservation. Most of the story is seen through the imperfect, inchoate vision of the children, particularly Justine. It’s terrifying to see how much and how little they understand. It’s a violent, brutal, tale and Justine is traumatised and abused (she’s not alone in that), but she is strong, determined and becoming more sure of herself as the story develops. The Choke explores the depths of the human experience and our capacity for survival. Justine has to navigate the duplicitous world of adults, try and understand events around her. The denouement is both heart-breaking and uplifting. This is a novel that will stay with you, Laguna let us in on Justine’s world view and it is eye opening. We see how she experiences things, how she witnesses and understands much of the world around her; it’s uncomfortably honest and real. This is a novel that also explores themes of acceptance; attitudes to gender, sexuality, disability and difference. The Choke is a novel that makes you hopeful that things really have changed for the better since 1971.

The Choke is the narrowest part of the river. It represents that point, this place and time, in which Justine is stuck – her family, poverty, prejudice and brutality. But it also represents freedom, beyond The Choke is the opportunity to escape, just as the water runs to the ocean. The sense of a watershed moment will make sense as you read the novel.

Paul Burke 5/5

The Choke by Sofie Laguna
Aardvark Bureau 9781910709573 hbk Mar 2019