Often when I read an award winning novel I wonder why did the judges choose this novel, what did they see in it that I didn’t. I had no such thoughts with Sofie Laguna’s novel The Choke, which won the 2018 Indie Book Award for Fiction. Her previous novel The Eye of the Sheep won the Miles Franklin Literary Award – I’ll look forward to reading it.
The Choke is set in rural Victoria on the Murray River. All the adult characters are dysfunctional but we meet them through the eyes of a child, ten year old Justine, who is, if we were classifying her, a neglected child child growing up on her Pop’s three acres, and she loves all the adults in her life, seeing only good in them. Through her voice we learn why the adults are the way they are – Pop a survivor of the Burma railway in WWII, Ray – her father- who lost his goodness when he saw his own mother die, Ray’s sister Rita – a lesbian that is shunned by the rest of the family, the cousins living a gypsy style of life and ex wives of Ray.
Laguna’s description of place puts you in it. ” Soon we came to the trees, their trunks as wide as bulbs. You could see the roots above the ground, trying to cover every direction. The branches moved slowly. Their bark red and pink and cream, peeling back, showing the bones. Their leaves silver-green in the grey light.” Laguna’s mental descriptions put you in that head space as expertly as her descriptions of place. We know and feel how the characters feel.
From the beginning we know something bad is going to happen. The tension builds. Justine is made to sit with a disabled boy and they form a friendship which is to teach Justine the value of friendship and that there is the possibility of a different type of life. The disabled boy’s family are like the light in the story where Justine’s family is the dark side of life. When the family leaves town to move to Sydney for their son’s education my heart sank as I thought all hope for Justine had just left town. In a way it did.
Through a horrendous set of circumstances something that would normally fill us with misgivings gives both Justine and us hope for the future. An uplifting ending. I have to admit I would like to know what the outcome is ten years on for Justine but at the end – definitely hope.
This was a book that dealt with many issues – dyslexia and homosexuality being only two of them – I’m not saying more because I think that gives too much away. Would I recommend you reading it – YES. This is another book that I think should be on the school reading list and indeed everyone’s reading list. When I started reading I couldn’t put it down. I had to know what happened and although I had surmised a number of scenarios I was wrong on each count. A good book to get a feeling of Australia but the issues I believe will resonate with everyone no matter where they live. Definitely worth a read.