THE CHOKE

Sofie La­guna Allen & Un­win; $32.99

The Monthly (Australia) - - VOX - HE­LEN EL­LIOTT

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.

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