Publisher: Aardvark Bureau
Publication Date: 28th March 2019
Early 1970’s in an Australian rural town next to the Murray river, 10 year old Justine Lee is struggling with life. Her mother left when she was a toddler, her father, Ray is somewhat of a wanderer, dipping in and out of little Justine’s life as and when he sees fit. Where he goes and what he does during his many absences in anyone’s guess.
Justine lives with Pop, her paternal grandfather. A man who is psychologically scarred by the horrors of the Boer war. A man who struggles with not only looking after a 10 year old girl, being her sole carer, but also who struggles deeply with looking after himself, battling his internal demons each and every day.
Justine has huge difficulties fitting in at school, a sufferer of dyslexia, Justine is falling more and more behind her peers in their studies. An outcast in the social spectrum of school life, Justine has a very tenuous ‘friendship’ with two girls who have very little respect for her. When she is asked to sit next to Michael one day in class, a boy who is physically disabled and the unfortunate butt of everyone’s jokes, Justine begins to find an affiliation with him, which later forms into a strong bond. Michael understands her, looks past her failings in school and looks out for her, taking her into his family, where she is cosseted and treated to a glimpse of what a real comfortable, normal family life is all about.
Justine, in her loneliness and isolation finds solace in nature and the river. She regularly spends time down at ‘The Choke’, the narrowest part of the river, in her hideout. Imagining a life she feels she’ll never have.
When Ray comes back into town after one of his absences and snarls Justine up in his criminal behaviour and vengeful acts on a neighbouring family, Justine’s life veers down a path she is ill prepared for and ultimately she has to fight harder than any young girl should ever have to.
I think I felt overly emotional reading this book because my own daughter is nearly the same age as Justine at the start of the book. The reading experience, especially of a book like this, is always heightened when you can identify as a reader in some way to the characters.
She is just a confused, lonely, troubled little girl who is crying out for some love and care. Pop, whilst trying his hardest most of the time to care for Justine just doesn’t have the wherewithal to do the job properly. There are days where he forgets to light the fire, doesn’t bother with cooking dinner and takes to his bed with his aching gut and bottles of beer for company. He seeks solace in his beloved chickens, talking more to them than he does to young Justine. But occasionally they come together and his affection for her is shown in the smallest of ways.
I am notoriously bad with child narrators (I have a blog post planned about this subject). But I think because Justine has such a brave and distinct voice, I just gelled with her narrative. I also feel that as I have a daughter who is ten, I could identify with Justine. Reading a book about a character you can equate to someone in your real life always makes a story way more emotive I find.
This story is not an easy read by any means. With themes of neglect, sexual violence, alcoholism and loneliness it isn’t going to be to everyone’s taste. However I feel Justine’s story is an important one. The writing is compelling and Sofie Laguna doesn’t pull any punches. However I was somewhat relieved when a certain scene was left to the readers imagination for the most part.
I was reading this book on my lunch break at work and found myself with a sense of foreboding building in my stomach. I knew what was about to happen but desperately hoped it wouldn’t. I almost wanted to set the book down and hope it would halt the flow of events!
Emotive and raw, dealing unflinchingly with difficult subjects, Justine’s story needs to be heard. Sofie Laguna is a very accomplished story teller and I need to get my hands on more of her work.
The Choke is not a book I would recommend to everyone. You would need to be able to comfortably read about the topics I mentioned above.
I would thoroughly recommend it to those of you aren’t feeling fragile though.
Thank you so much as always to the publisher for the advanced review copy and for having me kick off the blog tour. Make sure you check out the views of the other bloggers on the tour.
See you soon.
Bookish Chat xxx