There are many books that are read and forgotten, just leaving a vague impression. Then, once in a while, there come along books like The Choke, that are impossible to forget.
The Choke is the harrowing story of a young girl, Justine, living in the Australian bush. Abandoned by her mother and only occasionally visited by her father, Justine lives with ‘Pop’, who is deeply scarred by his wartime of the Burma Railway.
As a result, Justine is left to navigate a confusing and brutal world with very little affection or guidance. To add to her difficulties, she has undiagnosed dyslexia, and so even her experience of school is of confusion and exclusion.
While Justine experiences happiness when her father, Ray, visits and gives her a taste of the affection that she so rarely experiences, and in her friendship with Michael, a fellow outsider, this happiness seems fragile and fleeting, in a life that is otherwise a struggle.
The characters in Laguna’s book are drawn in fine detail, from Justine’s brutal and secretive father Ray, who is missing a part of himself since his mother died in suspicious circumstances, to Pop and his demons. I loved Laguna’s portrayal of the disappointment experienced by Justine’s half-brother, when he fails to attract the attention or to impress his father, and is winded by Ray’s blithe cruelty.
“I remember the first time I saw it. Steve was seven and Dad was just home, just through the door. He’d been away a long time and Steve ran to Dad, and shouted, I’ve grown. Look at the mark on Pop’s wall, Dad. Look! and he pointed to the mark. His face was so light, his smile so wide, his cheeks pink. See how tall see, see! and he put his arms around Dad’s legs. I watched as Dad set him back. You got your mother’s height, poor bastard, he said, and laughed. He turned away from Steve and I saw the ground split open around him.”
The Australian landscape also plays a strong part in the book, from Justine’s dugout on the Murray River to the choke, which squeezes, but cannot stop, the flow of water. Amid Justine’s chaotic life, the environment provides some stability and comfort.
The Choke is a gruelling read and there were nights when I couldn’t get to sleep after putting it down. However, it was one of the best books that I have read in a very long time, and might even be one of my top 5. It is a stunning portrait of disadvantage, isolation and powerlessness in Australia.