Sofie Laguna Allen & Unwin; $32.99
Unless you’re Henry James you need a particular confidence to create an adult work with a child narrator. Sofie Laguna is something of a specialist in this area. The Eye of the Sheep, winner of the 2015 Miles Franklin Literary Award, was narrated by an unusual little boy called Jimmy finding his way through a precarious life. The Choke features a young narrator called Justine finding her way past an inheritance of brutality and loss.
It’s the 1970s and Justine lives in a clapped-out house by the Murray River where the banks swerve together and the water sometimes rushes wildly. This menacing part of the river is called The Choke and Justine has dreams about it. She understands that the water passes through The Choke and flows on and out to the sea. Justine lives with her two horrible halfbrothers under the protection of her grandfather. Pop, a veteran of the Burma Railway, considers the nearest town to be behind enemy lines and converses with his long-dead wife. Justine’s mother cleared out long ago, and her lady-killer father drops by only when he wants refuge from his wide-ranging criminal activities. On one of these visits he teaches his daughter to shoot. The future for nine-year-old Justine looks as brutish as her present.
At school she is considered dumb and smelly, although she manages to make a close friend of a clever boy with cerebral palsy. And, just as Jimmy found solace in the warmth of a dog, Justine loves the pretty chooks, the Isa Browns that lay all year round and are kept well guarded by a fierce rooster. Her father’s sister has escaped the family and, over several years, Justine puts all her fantastical hope of rescue in her aunt. Justine, sweetnatured, yearning to be loved, is unaware that she is stunning. Everyone notices, especially the males – and some of her relatives and neighbours hate her for it.
Laguna has a knack for setting nightmarish scenes filled with demon-like characters – or maybe just Australian hillbillies? – and then settling her attention on the meek innocent whom we cheer on to escape. This is wonderfully effective in novels for young adults because the drama of escape is compelling and readers have instant emotional identification with the central character. YA readers love and need every version of It Was A Dark and Stormy Night. In the arts, said Henry James, feeling is meaning. Yes, and adult readers also want to feel, but having come through endless dark and stormy nights they require sophistication of thought, psychological nuance and complex observations rather than a series of incidents and signposts.