The title of this book is apt. The choke is something I felt from the first moment. It’s also the main thing you worry about when you have small children.

While the book is not about strangulation, it is about children and adults who have not progressed much beyond the infantile. The vulnerability is palpable.

It starts with a frantic kids’ fight. Justine (Jussy) has teeth that are struggling through the gums. She is about six years old. It’s so vivid you can feel the power in her little legs.

We don’t know much about her yet, except that she is playing with big boys and one of them has access to a rifle.

The Choke in the River

The Choke is a part of the river that gets so narrow it might choke. But let me break this to you gently. This is a story of abuse and neglect.

Justine lives with her grandpa. Her father is a good-looking dead-beat-dad who happens to be on his way home when we meet them.

Grandpa, her carer, it becomes apparent has PTSD from the war. They lives on three acres in poverty (Pop’s Three). She eats eggs from their chickens and talks to them like siblings.

I would have said this was not the kind of thing I would want to read. Except that it’s so good.

You go straight into the world of Justine. And because she lives on the border of wild natural landscape, she inhabits nature. There’s oxygen in these parts. It is so beautifully written.

Starting with a monologue

Sofia Laguna told Jason Steger, Books Editor at The Age that her characters “break her heart completely.” Children are usually the central characters in her novels, which explore the impacts of trauma.

Her writing approach is to start with them giving her a monologue. The character explains their thoughts and feelings to her.

Much of this I read on a commuter train to Sydney each day. By the end, I was freely letting tears of joy and relief stream down my face. The catharsis was profound.

This is a superb piece of writing. Structurally well-crafted with prose that’s full of the vigour of youth, the nasty resourcefulness of degrading poverty. All loose ends are neatly tied.

I won’t give the ending away. But I’ll say it is nice to have a vulnerable protagonist finding hope and power at the end. To crush some heads, so to speak. With the searing, scorching power of a girl done wrong, she does her best to show kindness and restraint.

Highly recommended.

Buy a copy

Sofia Laguna’s new book is Infinite Splendour.

Her previous book, The Eye of the Sheep won the Miles Franklin.

The Choke was published by Allen & Unwin in 2017


Read the Magda Szubanski Review of Reckoning