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


kate said...

Hi all, thanks for the blog. I too found this book incredibly engaging, and really found Justine a very empathic character. The descriptions Laguba puts in her voice are very evocative. Her friendship with a Michael was lovely. The descriptions of Ray and Dad very good contrast. And I loved the chooks!
I have not read the reviews, and although the ending was very emotional and satisfying, I agree it’s a bit contrived and melodramatic. Justine moves from her position of powerless to powerful so completely, it feels like an idealised statement about women taking control of their lives, particularly with the lesbian couple providing her with refuge. And taking care of a child at age 14 is not going to necessarily provide Justine with a way forward.
However having said that, I found it a very engaging read, and a fabulous voice to experience pretty tough living.

Whispering Gums said...

Sorry I missed this Kate ... I should have been notified by Blogger but I don't think I was.

Thanks so much for your thoughtful comments. We missed you at the meeting.

We talked a little about the ending and how it pushed credulity somewhat, but we also know that Laguna wanted some hope at the end. I guess a little bit of dreaming, even in a realistic novel is not unacceptable. But this may be why it hasn't got as many award listings as we might have expected?