by Sofie Laguna
A quick, cruel, coming-of-age tale in the vein of recent remarkable literature on dangerous girlhoods and disjointed families.
Abandoned by her mother and only occasionally visited by her secretive father, Justine is raised by her grandfather. Justine finds sanctuary in Pop’s chickens and the beauty of The Choke on the nearby Murray River. But there is no one to protect Justine from danger. Her father is a criminal, and the world he exposes her to is lethal.
A brilliant, haunting novel about a child navigating an often-uncaring world of male power and violence, in which grown-ups can’t be trusted and comfort can only be found in nature.
“They tore at the branches of my hideout. They pulled away my bark-and-leaf walls, my towel-and-branch roof, my chimney of twigs. I threw rocks and dirt at them, then I ran to Kirk’s hideout and kicked at the top of the log. The log fell away, breaking into pieces. Kirk threw me on the ground and sat on me. I kick and bucked, pushing up and down, twisting my head from side to side so I saw the sky in pieces, dirt to sky dirt to sky dirt to sky.”
I have so many mixed feelings about “The Choke”. At one point I hated it, later on I loved it and somewhere in the middle I felt just okay about it.
This is a gritty, bleak story. Justine was abandoned by her parents when she was just a toddler, leaving her to be brought up by her grandfather. Her grandfather, fondly named Pop, is an alcoholic and a tormented man, suffering from what I can only imagine is undiagnosed PTSD.
Set in rural Australia during the 1970s, the title of this book refers to the banks of the river on which this dysfunctional family live – a beautiful but dangerous place to be. The Choke is the narrowest part of the river and it’s also overgrown, meaning that the water has to struggle its way through and this is a clever metaphor for story within these pages.
It’s fair to say that Justine doesn’t have it easy. She’s surrounded by dangerous men, guns and violence. She’s dyslexic so she struggles to read and write and she doesn’t have the support there to help her. She’s the only girl among men and as well as rarely taking a reluctant bath, she feels she has to hide her period on dirty rags. She’s naive and innocent and you can’t help but feel for her.
I particularly enjoyed Justine’s friendship with Michael, a boy excluded by his classmates because of his disability. These were some of the only chapters that I felt fully engrossed in the story and a book about this friendship alone would probably be a good one.
“When Michael asked me questions, he waited for my answers. He wanted to find out. He wouldn’t go on until I answered. It was the opposite of invisible.”
Other parts of the book weren’t really my cup of tea and at first I found I really struggled with the writing style. I was glad to find that part 2 was a lot better than the first which meandered and was slow moving. Interestingly, I’ve read reviews of people who say the exact opposite, which definitely confirms that this is down to personal taste.
I think it’s hard to say that you actually enjoy a book that covers such difficult subjects but this was definitely a powerful read, despite leaving me feeling a little depressed about the whole thing.
Overall rating: “The Choke” isn’t an easy read, it’s gritty and it’s disturbing in places, but don’t let that put you off – author Sofie Laguna is highly praised and rightfully so. This is a powerful read but not one I can say I enjoyed all that much – it’s 3 stars from me.
Thank you to Gallic Books for sending me a pre-release copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.