“When Michael asked me questions, he waited for my answers. He wanted to find out. He wouldn’t go on until I answered. It was the opposite of invisible,”
The Choke is the third adult novel by award-winning Australian author, Sofie Laguna. Ten-year-old Justine Lee has lived with Pop since her mother split when she was just three. Pop loves his chooks and the big man (John Wayne), loves his White Ox rollies and loves Justine too, but he’s haunted by what he experienced in Burma, building the Eastern Bullet railway during the war, so his caring for Jussy is somewhat erratic. Eggs are plentiful, but baths and clean clothes less so, and her shoes pinch her toes.
Justine’s older half-brothers live with their mum, Relle. All of them wait eagerly for the reappearance of Ray, the father whose mystique only magnifies with each month of absence. The boys vie for scraps of affection, moments of notice, desperate for their father’s approval: ”Kirk and Steve came over to him. Kirk walked with his chest out, like he was a man with a slingshot, a bow and arrow, and a gun, and he could choose which one he wanted to shoot. Steve was behind him, half hidden, in the cool of Kirk’s shadow.” And when they receive insults instead of encouragement, they try to hide their dismay.
Jussy finds school difficult: the letters jump around and go backwards. Then she is seated next to the boy everyone avoids, as a punishment. But that has a surprising result: “Michael knew the answer. I looked at him; he looked back at me, his eyes steady, while the rest of him jerked and shook, as if the person pulling the strings was excited.”
Laguna splits her tale into two time periods: 1971-72 when Jussy is in primary school; and a few years later, her first year of high school. She captures early seventies rural Victoria and the prevailing social attitudes with consummate ease. The sexual discrimination, disability discrimination, the homophobia, the sexist attitudes that demote women to second class citizens, the forced adoptions, the gun culture: all will strike a chord with readers of a certain vintage.
Laguna’s depiction of a ten-year-old’s interpretation of events, how the adults react to them, and what they say, is faultless. Despite Jussy’s confusion, her impressions are often uncannily accurate: “Every time Dad spoke, it was light, like a ball being thrown in the air, easy, like a breeze, but under it was heavy as lead.” Laguna’s descriptive prose is often stunningly beautiful.
Laguna gives the reader a diverse cast of characters: most are realistically flawed, and while their poor behaviour may disappoint, it can be understood as a product of their upbringing and life experience, even when the characters themselves are unappealing. There is a good deal of cruelty which, from the children can be unwitting, while from the adults is usually intentional. But there is much kindness also, often from those with most hardship to bear.
Justine is a determined young girl, kind and impossible not to like, or even love; certainly, she is easy to care about and hope for. Laguna’s characters deal with guilt, grief, jealousy, revenge, resentment, family disputes and PTSD. While there’s some humour, there are also heartbreaking moments that guarantee a lump in the throat, if not the eyes welling up. A brilliant read from a talented author.