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In the Breech: Sofie Laguna’s The Choke

The Choke
by Sofie Laguna
Allen and Unwin
384pp
32.99 AU
Published September, 2017
ISBN 9781760297244

Sofie Laguna was a successful writer of children’s and YA fiction before publishing her first novel for adults, One Foot Wrong, in 2008. Readers of that startling debut, or of her 2015 Miles Franklin Award winner The Eye of the Sheep, will find many familiar themes in her latest novel The Choke. Each is concerned with the struggle of a vulnerable child to define and to protect him- or herself in a grown-up world; each an astute, affecting exploration of the particular pressures that parental neglect and violence place on the children who observe and absorb it. Laguna’s subject matter is often confronting, the families she depicts beset by discord or economic hardship, her young protagonists forced to fend for themselves in harrowing circumstances. Yet while she takes her readers into what is very dark territory, exploring the effects of serious trauma and abuse, her novels are not bleak. The strength of her young narrators, their resilience and imagination, allows her to retain a crucial element of hope – even the promise of redemption – in the face of enormous suffering.

Laguna began her creative career as an actor. Interviewed for the Sydney Review of Books in 2015, she told editor Catriona Menzies-Pike,

I am meant to be a writer – but it is the actor in me who writes. What I mean by that is that I joyfully inhabit the voice of a character as if I’m playing that character. I’m not, I’m writing and the character is on the page – but it’s as if I’m improvising as the character, which comes naturally to me.

This approach is an important clue to what distinguishes her writing, as she slips seamlessly into the peculiarities, and the singular language, of a protagonist’s world view. Writing fiction with a young adult narrator, as distinct from YA fiction, Laguna requires her adult readers to alter their perspectives in several ways, as they enter into a period of life through which they have already passed, in a doubled act of remembering and recognition. With each of her novels focalised entirely, and intimately, through the eyes of one individual, Laguna is particularly skilled at taking her readers inside traumatised young minds. Her narrators are inherently unreliable, understanding only some of what they see. Readers must piece together a bigger picture, constructing the fictional world that lies beyond what is narrated.

One Foot Wrong depicts the drastically confined mental and physical space inhabited by Hester, a child imprisoned by her religious parents, with inanimate objects for companions, her only imaginative resource a child’s illustrated Bible. In The Eye of the Sheep, the all-encompassing, occasionally claustrophobic world of Jimmy Flick is built from a host of perfectly-drawn details. Faces and bodies and expressions and words – the rooms through which characters move, the objects with which they interact – are broken down into smaller and smaller units, as if all can be understood through the logic of the machines by which Jimmy is so passionately fascinated.  Jimmy is never referred to as being on the autism spectrum, even if the combination of his mechanical brilliance, his limited yet precise emotional intuition and his erratic temperament may bring such a diagnosis to mind.

Justine Lee in The Choke is an observer, seeing and often unseen, who must navigate a treacherous sea of adult behaviour. She builds herself the solid structures she craves: in the bush by the Murray a lean-to hideout of stones and branches; in her dreams and her scrapbook a magical truck that will take her anywhere she wants to go. If Justine, at one and the same time a thoroughly naïve and preternaturally perceptive girl, is perhaps less obviously unusual than Hester or Jimmy, her language less immediately or explicitly idiosyncratic, she is no less engaging a narrator. In this finely-wrought novel of the transition from childhood to adolescence, Laguna gives us another young voice as authentic as it is affecting.

Justine’s birth, recounted, is a difficult one – she comes out ‘on her knees’, a breech baby: a supplicant for her mother’s absent affection and her father’s unreliable attention. Her mother Donna was ‘split’ – torn by the violence of the birth – and then she ‘split for good’, heading for the north coast. Justine grows up in the early 1970s on ‘Pop’s Three’, three acres owned by her grandfather which back onto a stretch of the Murray known as The Choke, where the banks of the river draw close enough to almost touch. Pop is a veteran of the second world war and a former prisoner of war on the Burma Railway, carrying all the hallmarks of post-traumatic stress disorder, although it is never named as such. Seen through Justine’s eyes, he is wary of strangers and temperamental, images of blood and savagery peppering his muttered speech. He is laid low on occasion by waking nightmares, taking to his bed and leaving his granddaughter to look after herself. Although he is her closest companion, even Pop does not seem to see or hear Justine much of the time.

If I had stood somewhere else, or gone somewhere else, what difference would it have made? The only difference I made was in the breech. That was the only time I could be felt.

Justine’s path throughout the novel will, in fact, become a battle to be heard, to be seen, to be felt – to have a say in her own fate.

The absence or unreliability of parents, the fraught dynamics of dysfunctional families, and the presence of well-meaning yet inadequate surrogate parental figures – like Justine’s Pop – are central themes in Laguna’s fiction, as her protagonists look to these adults for a measure of stability which, by and large, they cannot provide. Raymond Lee, Justine’s father, is the presence around which much of the book circles – often away on undefined criminal business, his visits are tensely awaited by Pop, Justine, and her half-brothers Steve and Kirk. When he comes to Pop’s Three, those around him are on tenterhooks; his sons desperately seek his approval, Justine is at once entranced and intimidated, while Pop seems unsure of what he is allowed and not allowed to say. The memory of Justine’s grandmother Lizzy, who died when Ray was a teenager, looms large. Justine tells us that,

When Lizzy died my dad was standing beside the bed, holding her hand. She took some of him with her as she left. Lizzy held the missing piece where she lay underground, and it was too deep under there for Dad to get it back. The missing piece was the key to the lock of Dad’s face, the light in his eyes, the words for his secrets.

What is left in the place of this light is a deeply selfish and volatile man, capable of shocking heartlessness, who treats Pop’s Three as a kind of waystation and his children’s presence as an inconvenience, an affront or an amusement, depending on his mood. Laguna, with her stage background, has a particularly fine ear for dialogue, bringing to Ray and Pop, Steve and Kirk unmistakably Australian male voices. Their exchanges are heavy with suppressed aggression that threatens to blow every conversation into a fight.

Poverty is an ever-present pressure in Justine’s life, and a theme which Laguna has explored before: the threat or cold reality of unemployment; the multifaceted effects of economic stratification; the ways in which children are particularly vulnerable to financial instability. When Justine goes to school each day on the bus she enters a world where her unwashed hair and the egg stain on her worn school skirt are fodder for treacle-tongued bullies. Sent to school without lunch, she is forced by the girls who call themselves her friends to perform for leftover morsels from their lunchboxes. Her schoolmates punish her for her background without, perhaps, even understanding what they’re doing or why – understanding only that she is different. The elusive promise of escape from the insecurity of life on Pop’s Three appears in the figure of Aunty Rita – a near-stranger to whom Justine is, nonetheless, immediately drawn, and who has been kept away from the property on which she grew up by Pop’s refusal to countenance the fact that she is a lesbian. Yet while Rita’s kindness offers a glimmer of hope, Justine must rely first and foremost on her own devices as she steers a fraught course through puberty, forced to grow up too early and too quickly.

Justine finds fierce and unexpected loyalty in her growing friendship with Michael, a boy at her school whose cerebral palsy attracts the ridicule of his peers and the underestimation of teachers ill-equipped to recognise his intelligence. He and Justine share not only the experience of being tormented or avoided for their difference, but also a keen sense of compassion and a vibrant imaginative curiosity. Michael sees the dyslexia that keeps Justine back in school when no one else has even thought to look, and he helps her; Justine, separated from the other children, begins to realise that in fact she can understand every word Michael is saying, and that she wants to listen.

When Michael talked the jerks interrupted him, but he pushed past them to where the bones lay, digging them up, magnifying them until he saw every part and could put it into words.

Although he comes from a loving, financially stable family, and wants for little material comfort, Michael is nonetheless able to see in her a kindred spirit.

When Michael asked me questions, he waited for my answers. He wanted to find out. He wouldn’t go on until I answered. It was the opposite of invisible.

That Michael sees her, listens to her, waits for her to form her words and to speak, is a revelation to Justine. If we can trace any pattern through her relationship with the adults around her it is in their failure to give her the attention she needs; to see what she sees, to understand even that she sees. In forgetting how much Justine does observe – even if she does not entirely comprehend it – they expose her to horrendous brutality.  In one of the novel’s most shocking sections she is made an unwilling, and uncomprehending, bystander to what readers will recognise as an act of sadistic sexual violence – her presence all but forgotten, her witnessing unnoticed.

The landscape through which Justine moves, from Pop’s Three down to the Murray and back, taking solace in the trees, the dirt, the rising and falling water, is as much a character in the novel as any member of the Lee family. When she ventures down to the river’s banks she recognises each facet of the bush around her, familiar and strange at once.

Soon we came to the trees, their trunks as wide as bulbs. You could see the roots above the ground, trying to cover every direction. The branches moved slowly. Their bark red and pink and cream, peeling back, showing the bones. Their leaves silver-green in the grey light.

The Choke for which the book is named functions as a doubled motif: as the banks come together they threaten to strangle the flow of water; yet the water always hastens on, promising escape as it rushes toward the ocean. As Justine seeks refuge by its banks, it comes also to signify the challenges of her early adolescence: here is another passage through which she must pass if she is to survive, just as she passed through Donna’s birth canal and into the world; here, as in the breech, she can be felt.

Down at The Choke the river pushed its way between the banks. The water knew the way it wanted to go. Past our hideouts, past our ring of stones, past the red gums leaning close enough to touch – it flowed forward all the way to the sea.

Justine’s relationship to the world of plants and animals – from the solace she takes in the wild beauty of The Choke and the bush around it, to the tenderness she, like Pop, feels for the chooks whose eggs provide the bulk of their daily diet – is central to the novel. The human world poses many dangers to Justine, as it did to Jimmy Flick, and there is a comforting constancy in the non-human. If for Jimmy it could be found in the perfect logic of machines, or the unconditional and undemanding devotion of Ned the dog, for Justine it is found in the sturdy trucks which promise their driver a home anywhere, and in the Murray persisting undeterred on its journey seaward.

Laguna challenges the way adults tend to think about children, our underestimation of the depth and complexity of their perception – the imbalance between those ways in which they understand far more than adults might think; and those ways in which they understand much less than we assume. While Justine, Jimmy Flick and One Foot Wrong’s Hester each speak in entirely distinct voices, shaped by the particular trials into which they are born, we can trace through the stories of all three their author’s fascination with the permeability of words, the concepts they encapsulate and the images they conjure. At times the line between physical reality and the imaginative language Justine uses to understand and make it her own becomes hard to trace, and the metaphors through which she interprets the world are presented as if they were real. Telling the story of her mother and father’s brief affair, Justine describes their discovery in vivid, almost eccentric terms:

Relle found Ray and Donna in the truck. Donna was in Relle’s seat, with her arm on the handle where Relle’s arm went, her feet up on the dash where Relle’s feet used to go. Relle knew what Donna and Dad had been doing before she found them, as if her eyes had stolen away, climbed through the window into the cabin, hidden behind the mirror and seen everything that happened, then went back and told the head.

From the vocabulary of Hester’s circumscribed yet vivid impressions, to Jimmy’s comprehension of the world through the language of machines, and Justine’s arrestingly insightful observations, Laguna forges a unique perceptive apparatus for each of her protagonists. Her imagery is always strikingly tactile, bringing physical detail into sharp relief, causing readers to see our bodies, our sensory perceptions, our actions and reactions, with fresh eyes.  As Pop lifts his beer in a toast, Justine tells us, ‘his smile opened his face so I could see inside where the Japs got him’; lying in bed at night, waiting tensely for Ray to arrive, ‘I closed my eyes and watched scissors cut the air above my head into pieces’.

Children are at the centre of Laguna’s novels, their perspectives emphatically privileged. Her protagonists are abused, neglected or simply overlooked by adults who have themselves been failed, and who re-enact the violence of which they too have been victims. Yet there are also those who find within themselves the capacity to protect, and to atone. Laguna’s novels do not deny their readers the spectre of redemption or release, even when the territory into which they take us becomes almost unimaginably grim. The possibility of escape is never entirely removed from her resilient young narrators, who refuse to let themselves be abandoned, or defeated. Justine, like the Murray, knows which way she wants to go, despite the circumstances that threaten always to cut her short, to trap her, to force her into silence. Some readers may find this optimism incongruous with what precedes it – if nothing else it certainly sets Laguna’s novels apart from much literary fiction dealing with similar subject matter. Character, rather than circumstance, seems finally to determine the path of her protagonists, who move forward in spite of their trauma, holding onto the promise of an end to the cycle of violence.