Miles Franklin-winner Sofie Laguna has developed such a characteristic literary style that it’s easy to forget that The Choke is only her third novel for adults. Here, her child narrator is Justine Lee, who is 10 in the early ’70s when the story starts. Justine has severe dyslexia, a crippling shyness and lives with her pop in poverty and neglect on a bush block, called Pop’s Three, on the banks of the Murray where it narrows (the choke of the title). She’s surrounded by misogyny and peril: from her Pop, an unpredictable former prisoner of the Japanese; from her two older half-brothers, who live close; from her violent, criminal father, Ray, who visits occasionally; and from a nearby estranged branch of the family, who have good reason to hate Justine’s.
Justine is vivid and unique but a first-person narrator who is uneducated and unworldly, who rarely interacts with other people and who has learning and language difficulties makes for a stylistic challenge. Only rarely does Laguna let loose and realise her potential. Here, she’s explaining why her mother deserted her, as a toddler: “I never left Pop’s Three after Donna split. It was me that split her. I was breech, waiting inside her on my knees. I thought that was the right way to come out.” At other times, Justine sounds like Jimmy Flick from Laguna’s Miles Franklin-winner In The Eye of the Sheep, and sometimes Justine’s lush poetic voice can only be Laguna herself.
Laguna’s brilliance is in the immersive empathy the reader feels for Justine, in the details of her brutal life, and in all the characters. At the same time, there’s some kind of reluctance to really allowing the novel to soar. Laguna allows no nuance to be unexplained and sometimes circles back to make and remake her point so that everything is clear to the reader. Sustaining 370-odd pages in the voice of so idiosyncratic a narrator might be beyond even Laguna’s talents. In contrast with the enveloping first section, part two, when Justine is 13 and just beginning high school, seems rushed. It’s here that Justine’s trajectory reaches its natural conclusion.
The artistic struggle between style and content is mostly wrongheaded: they are two sides of a coin. Justine herself says, in a typically elegant sentence, “…words were different for me than for other people”. Laguna’s emotional control is deft, but she promises a different protagonist from the one she delivers. LS
Allen & Unwin, 384pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 9, 2017 as "Sofie Laguna, The Choke ". Subscribe here.