Thursday, 27 September 2018

Sofie Laguna's The choke

Sofie Laguna's latest novel The choke proved to be a popular book with our group, even though subject is not a cheery one. It's about a young impoverished, dyslexic girl, Justine, living with her war-damaged grandfather, Pop, on the edge of the Murray.

As usual we started with a whip around for first impressions:
  • a fantastic read; couldn't put it down; hard to put down; loved it; engaged from the start and couldn't stop
  • grim; gut-wrenching; harrowing; riveting but horrendous; enjoyed it but was traumatised; loved it but had to read it during the day; struggled because it's so harrowing, but kept going because another member said the ending offered some hope
  • loved the naive narrator, and how Laguna was able to present the perspective of a child while enabling adult readers to see what was really going on
  • the main character is incredibly endearing; the main character was vulnerable but brave
  • loved the Murray River setting; the description of the river and country-side were great
  • incredibly well-written
This just about says it all! However, we did tease out some of these points a bit more.


We discussed how effectively Laguna got into the head of this neglected young girl, though whose first-person voice the story is told. She's unaware of just how impoverished and neglected she is, and is as resourceful as she can be in managing the life she's been dealt. She is such an isolated character - with the only person really able to help and understand her being her Aunt Rita, but the war-damaged Pop, with whom Justine lives, will not accept his lesbian daughter, thus depriving Justine of this life-line. (We all liked Aunt Rita.) Some members felt the book had the bleak hopelessness of Frank McCourt's memoir, Angela's ashes.

We liked how Laguna portrayed her friendship with Michael, and how, being an outsider herself she understood him.

We talked about her tricky relationship with her half-brothers, about the way her father, Ray, behaved erratically with his children, not providing them with love and stability they need. Here is Justine about her father and half-brother Steve:

When I looked at 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.

We discussed Ray's cruelty in teaching Justine to shoot instead of big brother Kirk who so wanted his father to teach him. Here's Justine on Kirk's reaction when their father takes her for a ride on his birthday:

I watched as Kirk turned and walked back into the house. His head was down. It was his birthday, one month late. But it was his birthday. As he walked, the half that was the same in us shrunk to nothing. (p. 100)

We also noted how Laguna sets us up through a playing scene at the beginning of the novel for the brothers' desertion of Justine at the choke when she's vulnerable and at risk. One member commented on how beautifully plotted the book is, how everything that happens points to something later.


A member asked what we thought of Pop. Had he caused his wife's death, she asked? The consensus was that he had, though it's clear he loved her nonetheless. He is war-traumatised - the Thai-Burma Railway. We all felt he loved Justine, and that although he's pathetic, he's the only real constant in her life. He's a complicated character whom we sometimes like, and sometimes not!

One member noted the chain of violent behaviours in the family, from Pop to Ray to Justine's brothers.

The writing

We were impressed by how Laguna engenders dread, and implies the horrors that happen, without resorting to explicit description.

We loved the vivid description of the setting and the river, and discussed the title and its meaning. The choke is a real place on the Murray River, a bottleneck through which the water must squeeze. It's a place of escape and tranquility for Justine. However, it also has a metaphorical role in the novel, symbolising the things that threaten to choke her life and conversely her ability "to push through and keep going."

One member shared the following quote:
When Dad was home Pop's Three was charged, as if Aunty Rita had put her electrical pads to the roof and pulled the lever. Kirk and Steve never wanted to leave. If Relle hadn't made them go home they would have hung around the yard all day, waiting for Dad to see them or speak to them or shoot the air with a pistol and say, Bullseye, boys. (p. 71)
She liked it because this one paragraph contains so many issues: the influence of Ray, the boys' need for him, and perhaps his potential for tenderness/kindness (towards them) never to be realised. The author captures so much - the environment, the family connections and influences - in just a few sentences.

We wondered why Laguna set this in the 1970s rather than more contemporaneously. Maybe it's because in current times a character like Justine would be picked up by education and welfare systems (we hope) so would not be as believable as she is in the 1970s.

One member commented that it's very Australian writing.

Final comments

We liked that it's ultimately positive - or, at least, looks more positive for Justine at the point it ends. Laguna, we understand, believes that hope is important.

Given that essentially all of us liked the novel, we wondered about the negative reviews some members had read. One was by James Ley in the Australian Book Review. Among other things, he said it was melodramatic, stereotypical, and lacks the vitality of Gillian Mears and Tim Winton.

We, however, were surprised it was not listed for the Miles Franklin award, and was only longlisted for the Stella Prize and Nita B Kibble Literary Awards!

PRESENT: 10 members

Sunday, 23 September 2018

Austerlitz by W G Sebald

Six of us hardy souls gathered on a cold night before a fire to talk about Austerlitz by the German English author W G Sebald.

This book is a fictional biography of a war refugee called Jacques Austerlitz. Rather surprisingly it includes black and white documentary photographs. It tells the story of a child, born in Prague, who escapes the Nazis as a 4 ½ year old and grows up in a Welsh village with an unhappy religious couple. He becomes an art historian with a passion for architecture. However he is also passionate about his origins and only finds out his real name as a young man of 18. He researches his mother and father, and his mother’s tragic end and while doing so meets the narrator – supposedly W G Sebald. He is also reunited with his nanny in Prague and this helps him to discover more about his parents.

The story is told over many years with a monologue occasionally assisted by the narrator.  Austerlitz suffers a breakdown from the stress of learning about the effect of the Holocaust on his mother. The story concludes with a visit to a cemetery and the narrator reading a book given to him by Austerlitz of a man looking down into a diamond mine in South Africa:
terrifying to see such emptiness… to realize that there is transition , only this dividing line, with ordinary life on one side and its unimaginable opposite on the other’. (p414)  

Our initial reactions to the novel include:

  • Stunned by it
  • Loved the fact that he wove ‘things’
  • Impressed by it
  • Struggled with it
  • Found the long sentences difficult/structure
  • Very gloomy and sad
  • Intellectual, complex
  • Talks about time, water and memories – mentioned in a Guardian review
  • Loved it – reminded her of Sebald's The Emigrants, and Toni Morrison’s Beloved (because of the theme of "beating back the past")
We talked about the author W G Sebald. He was born in 1944 in Germany and died from a brain tumor in 2001 in Britain. The introduction by James Wood was helpful in advancing our knowledge of the effects of WW2 on people living in Central Europe and the transportation of children from there to England. It helps the book make sense.

Sebald’s style was discussed in some depth. There are so many different aspects in this novel. The long sentences, no chapters and no paragraphs were hard for some of us to cope with although the chronology of the story helped. Sebald was very clever in the way he included peripheral stories without giving the full story eg of his childhood friend Gerald. We are just supplied with ‘crumbs’.

We were astonished at the way Sebald discusses the effects of the Holocaust without actually going into details.  It made us think we can understand how some people reacted. One member reminded us that in An Unnecessary Woman the main character loved this novel because it dealt with the Holocaust but by only mentioning it indirectly. (We chose to read Austerlitz in fact because we were intrigued by its mentions in An Unnecessary Woman.) 

We wondered about our own journey in finding out about the Holocaust. Many of us were first exposed to it by reading Anne Frank’s autobiography, which has lingered in our heads since we first read it – many years ago. However our generation grew up with the effects of the Second World War. We grew up with war stories.

We also discussed the language, remembering that it was written in German and translated, although the author spoke English. One member noted that the unnecessary woman (mentioned above), who translated into Arabic, said that the elongating of the sentences with little punctuation was ideal for Arabic. Another point was the use of French and German in the novel. These sentences are fine for readers who have the language but difficult for others of us. One member has knowledge of Czech so she enjoyed the few words in that language. She also explained that the Czechs have a keen sense of humour which she felt was revealed in the novel.

We noticed that Austerlitz’s love of architecture was evident through the novel in descriptions eg the Bibliotheque Nationale – as ‘light faded more like moss’. Architecture ‘affects the human spirit with plays of light on materials and shapes’ as seen in his descriptions of the new Library. He also made us laugh about the well-known foibles of French bureaucracy.

The gloominess of the novel and intensity was a feature we all felt. The black and white tiny photographs compel the reader to accept the sad and grim conclusion on the character and life of Austerlitz. Austerlitz’s brief romantic liaisons are also very sad and give little reprieve to this man. Austerlitz and his life are gloomy and very grey.  In comparison Prague is bright and light because Austerlitz is given clues which can help him solve some of the questions he is battling.

There is an intense sense of place – wherever he happened to be. Austerlitz’s trauma even as a mature man is overshadowed by his displacement from his mother and being sent to Wales. The narrator often met Austerlitz in gloomy places too to hear more of the story so that didn’t help, such as cafes in railway stations.

Bleakness in Wales for the young boy living with two very religious and unstable people was disturbing and only lightened by hearing about his friendship with the boy at school and his acceptance into Gerald’s family or the weekly visit to the church to sing hymns.

One member told us about an extraordinary woman she recently heard about called Dame ‘Steve’ Stephanie Shirley who was born in Germany and ended up in Wales as a child having escaped from the Holocaust. She too travelled on the Kindertransport as a very young child. She was brilliant at maths but had to attend a boy’s school to study it. She learnt about computers at the beginning of the computer age and changed her name so she could apply for relevant jobs. She went on to say that she thought it was all worthwhile because ‘my life was worth saving’.

The narrator was an excellent way to tell the story we felt and we were bemused by the fact that the narrator had internalized the story so that he could remind Austerlitz of the facts at times.

Towards the end of the novel we learn of Austerlitz’s mental state from his years of research about his parents and WW2  (page 322 Penguin 2011 edition).
I had discovered the sources of my distress… looking back over the last few years ... as that child suddenly cast out of his familiar surroundings : reason was powerless against the rejection and annihilation which I had always suppressed…. 

It is terribly sad and must have been a common reaction from those displaced people.

Time is a common thread and the thought that inanimate objects can tell a story as they know things. 
The dead are outside time, the dying and all the sick at home … for a certain degree of personal misfortune is enough to cut us off from the past and the future… A clock has always struck me as something ridiculous, a thoroughly mendacious object, perhaps because I have resisted the power of time’ …( pp143-4)  

(This is very telling of Austerlitz’s character – trying to fathom one of life’s great puzzles).

Some members thought Napoleon’s battle scenes were memorable.

Music is also a theme we discussed in this book, from Austerlitz singing hymns in the Welsh chapel with his adopted parents, to later in life when viewing a circus performance near the Gare d’Austerlitz in Paris. (See pp 382-4)
seemed to hear a long forgotten Welsh hymn … a waltz, or the slow sound of a funeral march ... nor could I have said at the time whether my heart was contracting in pain or expanding with happiness for the first time in my life. ( pp 382-3).

An excellent review of the novel is presented in this review written in 2001.
PRESENT: 6 members