Justine Lee is a little girl surrounded by males. Justine's mother abandoned the family many years ago, and her father Ray is in and out of his children's lives, leaving the main responsibility for raising Justine and her brothers to their grandfather. When Ray is around his criminal involvement is something that Justine, in particular, struggles with. She retreats to her sanctuary in The Choke on the Murray River to hide from the world, and seeks solace in the company of her Pop's chooks. In both places there's no judgement, no demands and no brutality.
Set in two distinct blocks, THE CHOKE starts out around 1971, when Justine is a 10 year old girl, and school is a turbulent place, except when it comes to her best friend - a disabled boy whose parents are supportive of both kids, a friendship without demands, and mutually supportive. Moving three years into the future, still reeling from events triggered by her father, 13 year old Justine is a vulnerable kid, naive and struggling with too many bad things happening to one little girl.
THE CHOKE isn't easy reading. Laguna has created a magnificent character in Justine Lee. Her voice is clear and utterly convincing. So much so that the sense of dread and fear over her ultimate fate is difficult to deal with. She's also created a sympathetic and very understandable man in Pops - somebody struggling with PTSD and his own demons, trying to do his best by his young granddaughter. His desire to keep her close to family, to keep her out of care is beautifully contrasted with the external viewpoint, where the options might appear more clear-cut. Against these two ultimately sympathetic characters, there's father Ray, a thoroughly noxious creature, absent aunts, cousins and family connections.
Supporting all of these characters is a strong sense of place - many kids growing up in country areas will know too well the "special places" that we find. The hidey-holes, the sanctuaries carved out in quiet corners, away from the adult world, or even siblings, hidden, private and safe. The passage of seasons, time, the impact of weather patterns, the animals, birds, flowers and natural features of those areas are often our consolation and our teachers, and Laguna gets that pitch perfect in this novel.
There's much in this book that's confronting and discomforting, and it's not straight forward reading, but it's worthwhile reading, digging into 1970's Australian rural life, dysfunctional families, and adult behaviour that has lasting consequences.