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.
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.