Book review: The Choke by Sofie Laguna

Thursday, August 24, 2017 Permalink

For reasons unknown to man I didn’t read Sofie Laguna’s The Eye of the Sheep when it was released in 2014 but got to it the following year and fell in love. And… had to belatedly add it to my ‘Favourite books of 2014’ post.

Laguna’s voice and the beauty of her writing won me over. Naturally my expectations for her latest book, The Choke, were ridiculously and unachievably high. So it’s even more remarkable that I was not disappointed.

Book review: The Choke by Sofie LagunaThe Choke
by Sofie Laguna
Published by Allen & Unwin
on September 1st 2017
Source: Allen & Unwin
Genres: Literary Fiction
ISBN: 9781760297244
Pages: 392

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.

Indeed, Laguna does it again with The Choke – brings the voice of Justine to life with amazing care, craft and unwavering poignancy. It’s impossible not to fall in love with the 10 year old who believes everything wrong in her life is her own fault for being born backwards. “Who comes out on their knees ? Who comes into this world begging ?” Justine would hear Pop would ask the chooks.

Not a word had yet been spoken. Nothing had been born. Not a single mistake had yet been made. It was right at the start. It wasn’t alive and it wasn’t dead. There was a tiny light, like a spark. The first mistake shone like a jewel, and it was mine. p 285

When we meet Justine she’s struggling at school and Laguna does a wonderful job of explaining her dyslexia (without labelling it until much much later and I suspect not doing so is a recognition of how little was known about it at the time) – though it’s heartbreaking to see the way she’s treated by her teachers and other children.

It was because I was born back to front. My words were breech, like me. Every year finished and I never caught up. p33

Thankfully Justine cares little about her teachers, the other kids and school. She has her two half-brothers, her Pop and an unlikely school friend. And then of course there’s her dad who visits from time to time.

In the beginning there’s a strong sense of family. Of solidarity and of loyalty between Justine, her half-brothers and her Pop.

Beyond the circle of light, trees moved in the wind and crickets called to each other. Pop’s fire held us together, burning with invisible flames that wrapped around us like arms. p 11

Things change however, and it’s sadly ironic that Justine’s father warns her against predators when he himself is the family’s biggest threat.

Throughout the novel we learn more about Justine’s father and the fact Pop bears the scars of WWII and his time in Burma… and the impact they’ve had on his family and future generations.

The visit from her father that summer in 1971 changes everything.

We went from full brother and sister to half, back and forth. Dad pushed us together then he pulled us apart. p 147

We skip forward three years to a time Justine’s again alone. Except for Pop – her mainstay.

Which I guess is why it’s so devastating he so easily doubts her when another crisis hits. (And the part of me who forgets this is a fictional tale hopes he – one day – learns the truth and feels sufficiently remorseful for the conclusions he’s jumped to!)

Like young Jimmy in Eye of the Sheep, Laguna writes Justine beautifully and sympathetically. It seems an impossible task but she manages to nail the authenticity of a young girl and her simplistic innocence while simultaneously creating beautiful poetic prose.

Her eloquent words and phrases again reflect the the beauty (and harshness) of the novel’s setting and – to some extent – the time in which it’s set (early 1970s).

Again I committed the sacrilegious act of turning over page corner after page corner to mark quotes I wanted to use in my review, until I realised I was never going to be able to decide which of the deliciously absorbing words I wanted (and needed) to share here in attempt to convince you to read this book.

Soon I came to The Choke. I watched the water flowing in one single direction. I took a deep breath. I closed my eyes, then opened them to see trees and river, then closed them. The hum of crying was so quiet that the sound became part of the Murray. I didn’t belong to myself anymore. I had no mouth or eyes or thoughts. I didn’t need anything to change or be different. pp 169-170

Bizarrely the reviews I find hardest to write are those for books I’ve loved (like this!). I worry I won’t do them justice. I wonder how many times I can gush over the characters, plot or writing without becoming repetitive or monotonous. (And yes, I know they kinda mean the same thing!)

This story is beautiful. It’s sentimental. It’s devastatingly heartbreaking in parts and heartwarming in others. It’s ire-inducing and will have you raging against the injustice in the world. It could ultimately be depressing but there’s a sense of hope, of resilience and of tenacity.

It’s a reminder that some people have an infinite capacity for kindness and love, but it’s also a reminder that others are incapable of giving others what they know they need.

You. Must. Read. This. Book.

The Choke by Sofie Laguna was published in Australia by Allen and Unwin and available from 23 August 2017.

I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes.


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