Book reviews

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The Choke by Sofie Laguna

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Australian author Sofie Laguna knows how to pull on my heartstrings. The Eye of the Sheep, which won the Miles Franklin Literary Award was excellent, but I think The Choke is even better.

The Choke is a place, a narrow spot on the Murray River which separates Victoria and New South Wales. Justine, The Choke‘s main character, lives with her Pop and his chooks on his three acres on the river.

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Justine will probably be the character from my reading this year who stays in my head forever. She is ten when the story starts and fourteen when it finishes, but this is not a book for children. The Choke is a book for adults, and much like The Eye of the Sheep, demands that we see children who are neglected and in danger and that we act on their behalf.

Justine’s Pop does the best he can for her, but he is physically and emotionally damaged from his time as a prisoner of war working on the Burma Railway. Justine’s father, Ray, is a charismatic, manipulative and dangerous man who comes and goes from Pop’s farm, usually turning up when he needs a refuge. Justine’s two older half-brothers live in town with their mother, who won’t even look at Justine as Ray left her for Justine’s mother. Justine’s mother is either dead or gone. Justine blames herself for her mother’s disappearance.

Justine is dyslexic and struggles at school, but none of her teachers or family notice. She just slides by, unnoticed. Justine has girl friends who occasionally comment that she is dirty or that she smells, but until she makes friends with a boy in her class who is also invisible because of his physical handicaps, has no one on her side. Justine and Michael’s friendship is a joy to both of them, and it was a joy to me too.

As Justine grew older she becomes more at risk, as a consequence of her father’s criminal activities and because she is completely unprotected by her all-male family, and also because of her own innocence. I felt furious with Justine’s Aunty Rita, who also comes and goes, as well as the other women in this book who must have seen and ignored the danger Justine was in.

The writing in The Choke is wonderful. Very Australian, and evocative of the time and place. My anxiety for Justine throughout this book was high, and I often felt uncomfortable and distressed as her story unfolded, but I was left with a feeling of hope for Justine’s future. I’m already looking forward to whatever Sofie Laguna dishes out next.

 

 

 

 

 

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The Eye of the Sheep by Sofie Laguna

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The Eye of the Sheep by Sofie Laguna won the 2015 Miles Franklin Award, an Australian prize for novels set in Australia of the highest literary merit. I haven’t read the other novels in the 2015 field, but The Eye of the Sheep is a good story, and well told.

The Eye of the Sheep is set in the west of Melbourne during the 1980s, in a blue collar suburb. The main character’s voice, the people around him, the locations, even the pastimes are so Australian that this story makes me feel nostalgic for a place ten minutes from where I already am and people I feel I already know.

The story is narrated by Jimmy Flick, who is a primary school aged child throughout the novel. Jimmy is unusual, he has a condition is never confirmed but which is probably on the autism spectrum. Jimmy asks a lot of questions, repeats what he is told over and over, and he becomes overloaded when too much is happening and gets out of control. Jimmy’s mother, Paula, is the only one who can control him when this happens. Jimmy’s questions and behaviour drive most people around him mad, including his father Gav.

Gav works at the Altona Refinery. When Gav gets drunk, which is often, he beats Paula. Their relationship is complicated, as Paula loves Gav unconditionally, and she uncomplainingly suffers his abuse. When their older son, Robby, is old enough and big enough, he steps in to defence Paula during a drunken beating. He beats up his father, all the while telling his father he has hurt Paula for the last time. Later, Jimmy calls this incident, ‘the last time.’

There is an uneasy truce in the Flick household until Robby leaves home to work on fishing boats. Gav loves his family and appears to be a broken man, avoiding the family by sleeping in his shed. Eventually Gav takes Jimmy with him to visit his Uncle Rodney at the beach for a few weeks, and the visit seems to heal Gav. Through Jimmy’s eyes we learn why the Flick brother’s behaviours and feelings are so complicated.

Gav returns home from the beach swearing he is a changed man, but despite his best intentions, when he loses his job at the refinery, he gets drunk and beats Paula again. When Gav hurts Jimmy, Paula fights back. Paula is a big woman, bigger than Gav, and Jimmy describes her emotions as catching on fire and sparks flying. At the end of this incident, Gav is the one on the ground physically hurt.

Gav leaves and Paula falls apart. From here the story takes a completely different turn when Paula dies of an asthma attack and Jimmy is left to navigate the world on his own.

Jimmy’s insights are priceless. He describes people and most things by their internal workings and his favourite reading is manuals for the household items. He calls school ‘enemy territory.’ His ‘cells spin uncontrollably’ when his emotions overloaded.

At all times the reader has empathy for all of the characters, including Gav. Thinking about this a few weeks after finishing the book, I still find this surprising. In real life I would struggle to feel this for Gav or someone like him, but through Jimmy’s eyes I have gained an understanding of a troubled person.

Jimmy’s circumstances could have made him a victim, but his strength of character ensures he is not.

The Eyes of the Sheep is sad but uplifting.  Sofie Laguna has written books for children, young adults and one other book for adults, One Foot Wrong, which I hope to read soon.

 

 

 

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