By Sofie LagunaFiction Allen & Unwin
Abandoned by her mother and only occasionally visited by her secretive father, Justine is raised by her pop, a man tormented by visions of the Burma Railway. Justine finds sanctuary in Pop's chooks and The Choke, where the banks of the Murray River are so narrow it seems they might touch – a place of staggering natural beauty. But the river can't protect Justine from danger. Her father is a criminal, and the world he exposes her to can be lethal.
Justine is overlooked and underestimated, a shy and often silent observer of her chaotic world. She learns that she has to make sense of it on her own. She has to find ways to survive so much neglect. She must hang on to friendship when it comes, she must hide when she has to, and ultimately she must fight back.
The Choke is a brilliant, haunting novel about a child navigating an often dark and uncaring world of male power and violence, in which grown-ups can't be trusted and comfort can only be found in nature. This compassionate and claustrophobic vision of a child in danger and a society in trouble celebrates above all the indomitable nature of the human spirit.
Sofie Laguna’s third novel for adults shows all the mastery of language and the punch for narrative suspense that garnered her a Miles Franklin award for her previous effort, The Eye of the Sheep. Once again this is a novel about a child caught up in events beyond her tender years. The book’s perspective is focused on the first-person viewpoint of ten-year-old Justine, who lives with her grandpa, Pop. With her mother’s whereabouts unknown, a criminal delinquent for a father who comes and goes as he pleases and a guardian who often succumbs to grasping demons from his time laying tracks on the Burma Railway, Justine grows up in a world of neglect, violence and machismo. Only her friendship with a physically disabled boy, Michael, helps to leaven the grimness of her life.
Set in the 70s in a rural setting near the banks of the Murray River, The Choke is full of richly-drawn characters, with a dialogue that crackles and a narrative that pulls you right in from the very first page. Beauty and ugliness sit squarely side by side in this book; the river gum tree setting is rendered with as much detail and care as the sensitively drawn protagonists, who are all victims of their circumstances. There is hope, towards the end, but it’s a hard-won battle to arrive at this position of grace. Laguna’s words have a snakey, muscly power. The Choke will corner you into its stranglehold and will not let go.
Kirk turned his slingshot over in his hand. ‘This thing is going to hurt, Justine.’
‘Really hurt,’ said Steve.
‘Don’t smile, or I’ll aim it for the hole.’
I closed my mouth. Some of the teeth were taking a long time to grow through the gum.
Kirk pulled the elastic strap tight. ‘You’ve got ten seconds. One … two … three … four … five …’
I took off through the trees as the numbers faded behind me. I ran beside the river, sometimes looking ahead, sometimes at the currents. Soon I heard Kirk and Steve following. We kept the same distances between us, not trying to run away, not trying to catch up. We knew where the branches came low and close to our faces, where the roots crossed the path like rope and where the fallen trunks tried to block the way. Kirk, Steve and me moved through the jungle like Pop and Sandy running from the Japs. Pop never knew what the war was for. Why a river of blood? Why so many boys? What was it flowed in the veins of those bastards?
We ran and ran – they were not the enemy and I was not the prey. The river ran beside us, muddy and high, eating at the sides.
‘Coming, Justine!’ Kirk called.
One day I’d have a boat ready. A raft of branches I’d weave together with Pop’s towrope. I’d hide it at the top of The Choke, in the trees that stood underwater.
I turned and saw Kirk closer behind me now. I ran faster. I felt a sting in the back of my knee.
‘Got you!’ Kirk shouted.
I turned and Kirk held up his slingshot. I kept running. I felt another sting on my leg. I screamed, and the galahs flew up out of the branches screeching and screaming at the same time as me. I turned again, and saw Kirk pick up another stone. I stopped, my face throbbing as I scraped up a handful of rocks and dirt. I ran at Kirk. ‘No!’ I shouted. ‘No!’ All the cockatoos shrieked and blasted from the branches in sprays of white. I threw my dirt and rocks at Kirk.
Kirk cried out, dropping his slingshot, hands to his eyes. I picked up another handful of rocks, as he stood spitting dirt, wiping it from his face. Then he turned and left the river trail, running through the trees to our hideouts. Steve followed and I was close behind.
They tore at the branches of my hideout. They pulled away my bark-and-leaf walls, my towel-and-branch roof, my chimney of twigs. I threw rocks and dirt at them, then I ran to Kirk ’s hideout and kicked at the top of the log. The log fell away, breaking into pieces. Kirk threw me on the ground and sat on me. I kicked and bucked, pushing up and down, twisting my head from side to side so that I saw the sky in pieces, dirt to sky dirt to sky dirt to sky.
Steve held the blade of his pocketknife to my face. ‘Better close your mouth,’ he said. I spat in his face.
‘Ugh!’ He wiped his cheek and I pulled my arm out from under Kirk, knocking the knife from Steve’s hand. Steve tried to take hold of my ankles but I kicked my legs too fast for him to get a grip. Our faces were red and hot, our breath hard and fast as we fought and struggled against each other as if it was the same war Pop and Sandy fought. If you lost what was it flowed in your veins, for what reason?
Kirk pinned my arms under his knees; I could only wriggle like a worm under the weight of his body. I pushed and grunted against him.
‘Enough,’ said Kirk and suddenly, as fast as we started, we stopped. Kirk put his hands in the air. ‘Smoko,’ he said, climbing off and sitting beside me.
Steve let go of my ankles and looked for his knife in the leaves. The knife only had one small blade, eaten with rust, but Steve said Dad gave it to him. That the knife could kill. Steve carried it with him everywhere. I sat up and we shook dirt from our hair and faces and out from under our clothes. We pulled off our shoes and tipped out the stones. I lay beside Steve, his shoulder against mine.
Kirk stood, hands in his pockets, looking up. The red gums leaned towards each other, as if they wanted to touch, the same as the banks of the river at The Choke. Kirk, Steve and me were held by the trees and their branches in the shapes of heads, faces trapped inside, pressing to see through the bark. Our three worlds joined. Our mothers were different but we all had the same name – Lee. Kirk walked into the triangle of our hideouts, where there was a ring of stones like the one around Pop’s fire. Steve and me followed. Kirk sat and pulled a wad of White Ox and a crumpled cigarette paper from his pocket. Steve and me sat too, watching as Kirk licked the shiny edge of the paper and rolled the tobacco into a cigarette. Stray pieces of tobacco stuck out each end, like a cigarette for a scarecrow. Kirk pulled a box of matches from his pocket. The cigarette glowed orange and Kirk coughed. He blew out the smoke and it billowed around his face. ‘Fuck,’ he said, coughing into the smoke. He passed it to Steve, who closed his eyes when the smoke went down, then blew it straight into the air in a stream, as if he had always been smoking and was good at it.
I said, ‘My turn.’
‘You’re too young,’ said Kirk.
‘No, I’m not.’
‘You’re only ten.’
‘How come Steve is allowed?’
‘Yeah,’ said Steve.
‘And you’re a girl.’
‘I can still smoke.’
‘No, you can’t,’ said Kirk. ‘And don’t tell Pop.’
I kicked at the dirt. But I didn’t want to smoke.
Kirk and Steve passed the cigarette between them until it was so low it burned Kirk ’s fingers. ‘Ouch!’ He flicked it into the air, then stubbed it out in the dirt with his boot. I scraped more dirt over the top. ‘Cigarette cemetery,’ said Kirk.
We got up, walked down to the river and sat on the edge. We threw sticks as far as we could, then stones to sink the sticks. The Choke was where the river was at its thinnest, the banks like giant hands around a neck. After the rain the Murray couldn’t hold, and it flooded, so the trees stood underwater. They stayed living until The Choke dried out and you could see the black water stains left behind on the trunks. You could see the cod moving across the river bottom, slow enough to spear. We each picked up a stick and aimed. Kirk said, ‘If we had Pop’s Mauser we could shoot one and bring it home.’
‘Cook it on Pop’s fire,’ I said.
‘Yeah,’ said Steve and Kirk.
‘Eat it with egg,’ I said.
Kirk aimed his stick at the water. ‘Kapow,’ he said, jerking it back. ‘Sorry, fish.’
Steve raised his stick and did the same. ‘Sorry, kangaroo,’ he said. ‘Kapow.’
‘Sorry, Mr Fisherman!’ I said and shot my stick.
Kirk and Steve laughed. We threw our guns out across the water and watched them fight the surface, then sink. Kirk said, ‘How about we leave you here, Justine? We could tie you to a tree. We could winch your mouth open so an owl could make a nest.’
Steve said, ‘Yeah, how about it?’
I said, ‘Yeah, how about it?’
‘Maybe next time,’ said Kirk.
‘Yeah, maybe next time,’ I said.
Kirk looked at the sky. ‘Better get back.’ We walked to our hideouts. Kirk came over and helped pick up my biggest branches, propping them against the pole-tree. Steve threw bark across the branches and pulled the towel tight for the roof. He took his knife from his pocket and cut the living branches for my shelf and Kirk shaped the esky. From inside my hideout I saw the forest between the branches. While Kirk and Steve fixed their hideouts, I scraped up piles of rocks and dirt as ammunition.
Soon Kirk said, ‘Come on. Pop will be waiting.’ We stood and looked at our hideouts, at the ring of stones, at the trees and the sky. Then we walked slowly, away from the Murray, along the path back to Pop’s Three.
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