The Choke, by Sofie Laguna, is a piercing and at times shocking coming of age tale. Set in small town Australia, its protagonist is Justine Lee who is ten years old when the story begins. She is playing a rough game with her two half brothers, Kirk and Steve, in woodland near her remote and neglected home. The family is fractured and often violent. Each has been shaped by cruelties inflicted by those from whom they might have expected affection.
Justine’s mother, Donna, left her daughter when she was three years old and hasn’t been heard from since. Justine’s father, Ray, is rarely there. The girl has been raised by her grandfather, Pop, on his three acre patch of land by the Murray River. They exist side by side talking more to their hens than to each other.
Kirk and Steve live with their mother, Relle, who Ray left for Donna. All three children seek Ray’s attention on the rare occasions when he returns. Ray is a callous father who amuses himself by baiting those in his vicinity. He has told Justine it is her fault her mother left. The boys idolise him but he pays them little attention.
Pop looks after Justine because nobody else would. Damaged by the war he has his own history of violence and regret. The one person who appears to be relatively happy is Pop’s daughter, Rita. She has made choices her father disapproves of leading to lengthy periods of estrangement.
Justine lives much of her life in her imagination. She cannot read or write so struggles at school. When she is forced to sit by a disabled pupil, Michael, her supposed friends expect her to mock him as they do. Instead, Justine learns to understand Michael’s mannerisms and utterances and he becomes her first and only true friend.
Growing up Justine had played with a neighbouring family, the Worlleys. Then Pop got into a fight and told Justine to stay away from them. Later, one of the older boys assaults her. Justine shuts down the part of her that understands why. She struggles to deal with the many violences, mental and physical, that she has suffered in her short life.
On one of his visits Ray favours Justine over his sons, ignoring her suggestion that he should be including Kirk. Later Ray tests her loyalty, having used her to gain access to a former girlfriend. Justine copes by suppressing thoughts of the damage he inflicts.
The friendship with Michael adds light to Justine’s grim existence but their shared pleasures are short lived. Left only with the memories of the different way of living she briefly glimpsed, they become something else she tries to forget in order to survive what is left.
The story jumps forward to when Justine is thirteen years old and starting high school. She is ill equipped to face the challenges this brings. Craving some form of affection she attracts attention as her body changes. With no one to notice or offer support, she suffers the consequences of being her father’s daughter.
Justine has no knowledge or experience of the words that could express the emotions she has been conditioned to suppress. This silencing, the years when her voice has been ignored, leads her to blindly accept a path until she finally realises she can no longer live this way.
Ray may be a monster but the author offers mitigating circumstances. Pop’s prejudices are damaging but he too is suffering the fallout of horrific experience. These are not excuses – Rita had the same upbringing – but they add depth.
The themes explored have been covered many times before in a plethora of stories but The Choke is still something special. It has a raw and compelling heart that lays bare the contrast between a child’s acceptance of the only life they know and their need for even some small measure of affection. It is emotive but never sentimental.
The land and the people are vividly portrayed as is the poverty and repetition of mistakes across generations. Although bloody and upsetting the denouement is fitting. This was a powerful and rare read.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Gallic Books.