Upon reading the first few chapters of Sofie Laguna’s latest novel, The Choke, you’d be forgiven for feeling a vague sense of déjà vu: a young, slightly eccentric child tries to make sense of the harsh and unforgiving realities of working-class Australia. It was the formula that won Laguna the Miles Franklin in 2015 for The Eye of the Sheep, her tale of Jimmy Flick, a young boy who must navigate his way through a world of physical and domestic abuse, both at home in Melbourne’s West and in the juvenile foster care system. It also formed the basis of Laguna’s debut, One Foot Wrong, in which her young protagonist, Hester Wakefield, is forced to form her own imaginative universe in order to survive the confines of her suburban home, where she is imprisoned by her reclusive, religious parents.
While these harrowing coming-of-age stories have won Laguna accolades, much of the critical attention on her work has surrounded her use of voice. In The Eye of the Sheep it was the voice of a child with learning difficulties, the child who can’t sit still, who feels connections like electricity, running in currents through the people and objects of his world. In One Foot Wrong, it was voice of an imprisoned child, a sensory-deprived and lonely girl, who is forced to make friends with Door, Cat and Broom in lieu of any real-world connections or experiences. And in her latest, The Choke, the voice of her young narrator, Justine Lee, once again rings loud and true – the tough and naïve voice of a child who has grown up in impoverished, rural Victoria.
Justine has grown up parent-less and abandoned, looked after by her grandfather, Pop, a returned prisoner of war from the Death Railway. She has grown up in a world of boys – of sticks and stones, semi-trailers and semi-automatics. A world she moves through like “Pop and Sandy running from the Japs” and dreams of escaping through her collection of newspaper paper cut-out cars and trucks: “It would go fast. A lot faster than any other car on the road…You could go a long way. You could follow the Murray to New South Wales.”
However, while the voices in Laguna’s previous novels served to cast a light on what were often dark tales – to make interesting and expansive a world which is, by its nature, as small and insular as the child at its centre – in The Choke this is taken a step further. Not only is this a story told through voice, but a story that takes voice at its very centre. A story about voice and voicelessness – about those who have it, those who are denied it, and those who find it.
From the moment we meet Justine, with her gap tooth as wide as a twenty-cent piece, we meet a child who has grown up used to keeping her mouth shut. Raised in her Pop’s shack on the edge of the Murray with only her older brothers for company, hers is a world named and shaped by boys and men. A world of cigarettes and beer, fire and fried eggs. Of Pop and Cockboy, White’s Ox’s and Isa Browns. A world where John Wayne is the “big man”, his lines recited by heart: Every time you turn around, expect to see me, ‘cause one time you’ll turn around and I’ll be there. Throughout the novel, Justine clings onto these words, reiterating and repeating them, finding comfort in their familiarity. But while she speaks them, they are not her own. Justine’s voice is buried and silent – her tongue flickering “in out in out” of her gap tooth, restless and ready but unable to speak for itself.
While the children around her at the local primary school are reading and writing, the letters don’t make sense to Justine. They appear jumbled and backward, unreadable and unfamiliar. As Justine stands at the front of the classroom trying to find the word girl in the box, she can’t: “I looked and looked but I couldn’t see a single word that began with g. I saw other words: Ma. Tac. Yob. I. Nus. But there was no girl.” She is the lost ‘girl’, swirling in her box of unknowables, laughable to her classmates, shameful to herself.
It is in only in the character of Michael Hooper, a boy physically disabled from birth, that she finds some understanding. Just as Michael chokes and splutters on his words – saliva dribbling down his chin, the words undecipherable to strangers – so too does Justine search for expression, her way of being heard. Through each other they form their own language, their own system of signs and meanings. “We had names,” she writes, “We had Matt Dunny Man. We had Brian the Toilet. We had Mrs Burning…I was Lee, and he was Hooper.” It is through names that they begin to make their voices heard in a world that has silenced them, bullied them, isolated them. That they begin to know each other, and through it, themselves.
Words, in Laguna’s book, are the key to knowledge, and through it, to autonomy. The Choke opens with Horace’s Latin proverb: Sapere aude, which we see again, in translated form, carved into the gateway to Justine’s high school: Dare to know. Or erad ot wonk, as Justine reads it. Without words, Justine lacks the knowledge of herself, and through it, the power to act and shape her life. “I never had words to ask anybody the questions,” she writes, “so I never had the answers.”
In Justine’s world, it is the men that have the words and the answers, and through it, the knowledge and power to shape and dictate women’s experiences. These are men who have the power to give names and take them away. As Justine farewells her soon-to-be rapist, Jamie, he asserts his authority through insisting she use his name:
“See you,” says Justine.
“Jamie,” he replies.
“See you, Jamie.”
When Aunty Rita asserts her homosexual identity, she is denied the validation of a label by her father: “Say it, Dad,” says Aunty Rita, “Don’t make me say the bloody words,” her father replies, “it’s bad enough”. It is through words that the men of Laguna’s novel shape and re-shape women’s identities and experiences. When Stacey Chisholm is raped by Justine’s father, “she’d wanted it a thousand times.” When Justine’s mother leaves her husband and child, “she wouldn’t do what a wife signed up for.” When Justine gets pregnant her male doctor tells her: “You are here because of your own actions, your behaviour.”
Lying in the hospital, forced to give up her child for adoption, it is words that fail Justine as she seeks to keep her child. Unable to read or sign the forms her grandfather has given her, Justine is unaware of her situation, of the rights and the life she has given up. “I couldn’t find the words, even for my baby. I could only cry for him, and long for him.”
In a world of battered and oppressed women, it is their cries that break through the silence. It is the cries of Stacey Chisholm as she is raped by Justine’s father, of her child, Sherry, as she waits for a mother that will never fully return, of Justine as she sits bleeding and scared in the hospital ward after giving birth. These cries merge and reverberate throughout Laguna’s novel, joining and becoming a unified grief: “I heard my baby calling for me,” Justine writes. “The same way I had called for Donna the day she left, the same way Sherry had called for her mother when Stacey couldn’t get out of bed.”
While these cries join the women in their grief, they are ultimately helpless in effecting change. As Laguna shows, it is only through the articulation of words that these women are able to reclaim and rearticulate their experiences. It is only when Stacey articulates the word rape that Justine’s father is jailed for his actions. It is only when Aunty Rita names her relationship with her girlfriend that she is able to push back against the bigotry of her family. It is only when the condition dyslexia is named that Justine begins to understand her ways of reading and misreading the world. Only when the nurse says baby does Justine understand what has been growing in her, and what has been taken from her. Only when she first says the word mother that she finds the resolve to become one: “I had never spoken the word out loud before. Mother. Could that be me? It was me.”
It’s true that a fourteen-year-old girl becoming a mother, especially of a child born out of a violent and malicious sexual assault, may not be the fairytale ending we might have hoped for for Justine. Perhaps we would have liked to see this girl find her autonomy through education, through strength and friendship rather than through a child. However, if Laguna’s publishing record has proved anything it is that, despite writing through and for children, Laguna is not in the business of creating fairytales. Her tales are of are cruel and unrelenting worlds, of wrongs not necessarily followed by rights, of crimes gone unpunished, of blows followed by blows followed by blows. At the moment when other authors might give in, go soft, let their world shift and open up for their characters, Laguna holds on tight, pushing her characters through the small and unforgiving spaces she has created for them, like waters rushing through the narrow banks of the Murray, squeezing through until they feel as though they might choke. But always, in the very darkness of her tales there is light, there is breath, and above all, there is voice.
Rebecca Slater is a writer from Sydney currently studying at the University of Oxford.