Australian literary powerhouse Sofie Laguna won the Miles Franklin Award for her 2015 novel The Eye of the Sheep. She has returned with a new book; The Choke. Set in rural Victoria, we meet Justine, the main character and narrator. She’s 10 years old, lives with her grandfather, rarely bathes and eats a lot of eggs (more on that later).
The book's first act depicts a cruel and bleak life for Justine. Her Mum has abandoned her. Her Dad has all but abandoned her. Pop (her grandfather and a war veteran) has taken her in. Justine’s crushing shyness prevents her from articulating her feelings. To make matters worse Justine has undiagnosed dyslexia. So written words fare no better for her than spoken words do.
On the surface, Justine might seem a little dull and uninsightful. But of course the reader has the privilege of understanding the young girl's inner workings, sometimes funny and often heartbreaking.
The title of the book (The Choke) refers to a thin strip of the Murray River where the water pushes through a bottleneck. This is also the spot where Justine and her half brothers play violent games and erect their hideouts.
The Choke is a location not featured that often in the book. But the title is suggestive of the violence and toxic masculinity that winds its way through Justine’s young life. The only relief is when she strikes up an unlikely friendship with Michael. His body convulses and his words are hard to understand, but she connects with him in a way few others do. Michael is also the only sympathetic male character in the book. Michael and his family show Justine how the other half live. This life of relative normality (something other than eggs for dinner) seems incomprehensible to her. Unfortunately even Michael abandons Justine, destined for a special needs school.
Laguna’s prose is clean, immediate and articulate. She writes with a sharp clarity that transports the reader into the emotion of the characters and the scene. Dialogue and physical descriptions of emotional reactions drive the narrative forward. There are few sequences of narrator reflection, where the reader and narrator alike reflect back on the events. This style is easy to read and allows the story to move forward with momentum. That said, a few more precious moments inside Justine’s mind might have helped the novel connect more with some readers. We understand Justine through her actions, and rarely through her own mind.
Sometimes Laguna overuses local colloquialisms. Take this passage:
“The next Friday night Pop wasn’t home; he was at the Yolamundi Hotel with Sandy. Sandy was a good mate, but he only went out if Pop picked him up. He couldn't drive after the war. Couldn't find the bloody gearstick after that, said Pop. Thought it was under the bloody seat. I told him, Sandy, it's a bloody car. But he wouldn't touch it. Brought it all back, the whole bloody business. No more for me, mate.”
When it comes to Australia’s unique vernacular, a little can go along way, and it can be hard to get the balance right. Laguna also doubles down on how she names certain things in the book. A chicken is almost always referred to as a chook. A cigarette; White Ox. Yes, this strong, cheap, roll-your-own tobacco does give a certain insight into the characters that smoke it. But by the time you read “White ox” for the 100th time, or you see the word “chook” used five times in a paragraph, it can be a little distracting.
Criticisms aside, The Choke drives its way to a stunning, moving third act. By this point Justine, now 13, finds herself drunk, raped, pregnant and abandoned. Dad is in jail for rape as well. Michael, her only real friend, has left town. Pop has made sure the kind and caring Aunty Rita isn't around to help, thanks to her sexuality and his homophobia. In the end Justine takes matters into her own hands, and fights her way out the only way she knows how - responding to violence and brutality with the same. In this way, Justine finally finds her own voice.
The Choke by Sofie Laguna is published by Allen & Unwin.