The Choke by Sofie Laguna
Told she was born breech, Justine feels responsible for her mother’s split when she was three, and virtually everything else that’s gone wrong in her life. Mentally scarred by his time as a slave on the death railway through what is now Thailand (the novel opens in 1973), Pop talks more to his chickens than he does to Justine and ventures into town only to replenish his stocks of beer. Although neglectful, and with his own history of violence against women, he’s a marginally safer parental figure than Justine’s dad would be: months will pass between visits (which she and the boys anticipate with a hunger only abandoned children really know) and, when he’s there, he’s likely to land in trouble whether or not he has the kids in tow.
As the novel begins when Justine is in primary school, we might hope she’d get a better deal there. But if the teachers don’t notice a boy with cerebral palsy, they’re unlikely to pay much attention to a quiet girl like Justine. She’s not good with words, written even more than verbal, so hasn’t a name for her condition, nor the benefit of an adult with the skill and patience to teach her to read.
Sofie Laguna perfectly captures the poignancy of Justine’s situation without being mawkish, or compromising the harsh reality. Although it isn’t completely bleak, even the good things don’t last. Aunt Rita, although she lives in faraway Sydney, would like more involvement with Justine but, due to his homophobia, Pop won’t have her in the house. Her developing friendship with Michael, the boy with cerebral palsy, and her acceptance by his straightforward middle-class family, enriches both outsiders, until the family moves away.
Sometimes things have to get worse before they can get better, and that’s certainly the case for Justine, as puberty and high school loom. Although I wasn’t completely convinced by the resolution, it’s sensitively handled, as is the novel as a whole. Nominated for several awards on its publication in Australia in 2017, I received my copy from British publishers, Aardvark Bureau, to whom thanks for a great read.
He Is Mine and I Have No Other by Rebecca O’Connor
As her parents anticipate the birth of a late second child, Lani thinks about the dead. Not only her soon-to-be-boyfriend’s mother, but the thirty-five orphaned girls buried in an unmarked grave nearby. Life was harsh in the industrial schools, financed by the state but run by the church, as Lani knows, from the book written by her aunt in England, who was herself given up for adoption and whom Lani has never met.
Poet Rebecca O’Connor’s fiction debut would make a lovely YA novel, but the adult reader might want a little more. Lani seems young for fifteen and it’s hard to get excited about a teenage romance, especially when part of the appeal is the love-object’s psychic wounds. While the historic abuse of the vulnerable in Catholic Ireland merits repeated airing, the pen-portraits of the orphaned girls that punctuate the text don’t add much more than we already know although, extended, this strand might have made the better novel.
Nevertheless it’s an easy and undemanding read described as brilliant, vivid, haunting and amazing by various eminent writers. Thanks to Canongate for my review copy.