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Sofie Laguna – The Choke

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You don’t know what you don’t know.

Publisher: Gallic Books (Belgravia)
Pages: 255
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-910-70957-3
First Published: 2017
Date Reviewed: 18th March 2019
Rating: 5/5

It’s the 1970s, and Justine Lee lives with her grandfather, ‘Pop’, by the Murray river in Australia. Pop was in the war and as a result doesn’t say much and rarely leaves home – most of what Justine knows of her family history has been learned through listening to Pops talk to his chickens. Justine’s mother left her and her father because, Pop told her, Justine was born breech. Dad rarely comes to visit, and when he does Pops tends to be angry; Dad, it seems, is not a nice person. Justine’s half-brothers don’t like her; her mother’s presence means their mother is no longer with Dad. The Lee and Worlley families are no longer friendly with each other. And Justine’s friends tell her she smells and should wash her clothes.

The Choke is a stunning look at the life of a neglected child who is trying to live whilst only semi-aware of the odds stacked against her. Looking at four years of Justine’s life – the formative time just before the teens and two years into them – it shows how devastating a lack of nurture can be, particularly in the context of the decade Laguna has chosen.

The author sets her story in an area a fair journey – at least on foot – away from the rest of society. This amplifies Justine’s familial issues, creating a physical gap that serves well to introduce the fact of the emotional and educational gap between Justine and her peers. Told from Justine’s perspective, you are required to read through the lines constantly, but this itself is no hardship – as soon as you’ve a few pages behind you and have a fair grounding in the situation, there is no need for Laguna to convince you further – Justine’s story is such that you’re rooting for her very early on. Laguna’s focus is on Justine’s development, the young girl’s slow collation of the bits and pieces of information she receives.

A lot of what Justine doesn’t know is down to the simple fact of her age – adults won’t explain to her what she’s too young to understand; inevitably she hears parts of conversations. But much of Justine’s complete innocence is due to her grandfather. Laguna doesn’t diagnose with labels, instead she provides everything you need as an adult to work it out – Pops has PTSD from the war – he speaks of the ‘Japs’ – and as the book continues, the affect his experiences have had on him are shown in increasing detail. Pops seems to have been saved by a friend, the only person he willing goes out to visit. He drinks, smokes, and watches John Wayne films which are such a big part of his day-to-day life that John Wayne’s characters become teachers to Justine. He speaks openly only to his chickens. As much as he loves Justine, he is ill-equipped to care for her, neglecting to teach her basic life skills and not watchful enough in terms of her health.

Laguna gives Justine a learning disability that no one in the book recognises. It is easily recognisable here, just as the PTSD is, and its introduction leads into the book’s biggest example of the difference between our society today and back in the 1970s: Justine struggles with school work but not one person notices. Well, not one adult person – the sole person who understands Justine’s problem and helps her is her friend, Michael, another person Laguna does not label.

In Michael, Laguna has written an incredibly good example of physical disability, in this case Cerebral Palsy, and it is in Michael that Laguna’s refusal to label shows itself for the excellent choice it is. By describing characteristics of disability, and dyslexia, and PTSD, without going into diagnoses, Laguna is able to develop her characters as real personalities without any of the stigma or easy stereotyping that another might have fallen into. Laguna shows the diversity of disability and mental illness, putting the person first. Inevitably she also provides information on how to go about treating others – as regular people. Whilst The Choke is not primarily about difference – with what Justine’s life consists of, it wouldn’t be right if it was – it is an active, excellent, commentary. And that’s true both in the context of its period – we get to see the issues people had back then, which is how Justine’s inability to read falls through the cracks – as well as examples of life that are of course just as relevant today. It is incredibly, hugely, refreshing.

(I am aware of the irony in my own use of labels.)

So the novel isn’t primarily about difference and can’t be: Justine’s life with her Pop is down to the situation of her parents which pervades the entirety of the 250-odd pages. Justine’s mother did not leave the home due to her daughter’s breech birth – of course. And her father isn’t away at work – as it’s important to know, he’s a violent criminal. Justine doesn’t know much about her father except that Pops dislikes him, and her brothers’ mother refuses to speak or look at her because of her mother’s involvement; she has seen her aunt only once because her aunt does not put up with the abuse she receives for living a happy life away from everyone and because she has a girlfriend. And due to the choices and lives of those older than Justine, Justine is herself a target, though she does not always know it. When she does know, she doesn’t know exactly why. This violence and hatred, together with the neglect, culminate to form the ending of the book.

The Choke is an excellent look at abuse, and the cycle through the generations, an example of why things continue and how important it is to look for signs in children beyond the obvious. It’s a super look at neuro and physical difference. And it’s written in a lovely, easy, language that is quick to read through. Laguna’s work has been described as highly original and emphatic. I can’t but repeat this.

I received this book for review. It’s out in the UK on 28th March, published by Gallic Books.

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L M Montgomery – Anne Of Avonlea

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No longer just of the gabled house.

Publisher: N/A
Pages: N/A
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult/Children’s
ISBN: N/A (Vintage Classics: 978-0-099-58265-6)
First Published: 1909
Date Reviewed: 5th March 2019
Rating: 4.5/5

Having decided to stay on in Avonlea, Anne prepares to become the new teacher of Avonlea’s school. Marilla goes to visit a distant in-law; with the lady on her deathbed, Marilla and Anne decide to help, and have her twins sent to live with them. Dora is quiet and good, but Davy turns out to be more trouble than Anne ever was. With new pupils at school, the forming of the Avonlea Village Improvement Society, and a new next door neighbour, there will be plenty to keep Anne busy while she continues her studies at home.

Anne Of Avonlea follows directly on from Anne Of Green Gables and is set in the two years following, ending with Anne at 18 years of age. Though a somewhat forced publication1, it reads as a well-planned sequel.

“Priscilla says Mrs. Pendexter’s husband’s sister is married to an English earl; and yet she took a second helping of the plum preserves,” said Diana, as if the two facts were somehow incompatible.

This book is, for many reasons, better than the first: the use of language is better; it’s got a strong comedic aspect to it; and, most importantly, it has a proper plot. Montgomery seems to have come into her own; she even breaks the fourth wall a few times.

The plot – well structured and nicely balanced between the predictable and the not so – fits together with the same use of community and spirit as before. Anne’s sense of purpose is well-defined, and in her role of teacher, Montgomery has the opportunity to create a plethora of new characters.

The new characters are super, especially the twins. Like Anne, you know they’re going to need time and patience. The humour from Davy is top-notch.

“Milty drawed a picture of Anne on his slate and it was awful ugly and I told him if he made pictures of Anne like that I’d lick him at recess. I thought first I’d draw one of him and put horns and a tail on it, but I was afraid it would hurt his feelings, and Anne says you should never hurt anyone’s feelings. It seems it’s dreadful to have your feelings hurt. It’s better to knock a boy down than hurt his feelings if you must do something. Milty said he wasn’t scared of me but he’d just as soon call it somebody else to ‘blige me, so he rubbed out Anne’s name and printed Barbara Shaw’s under it. Milty doesn’t like Barbara ’cause she calls him a sweet little boy and once she patted him on his head.”

As Anne is back home, we get to see more of Diana, and Gilbert returns often. (Suffice to say Anne uses his name in this book, and that promise of romance starts to lay down its foundations.)

Theodore White’s was the next stopping place. Neither Anne nor Diana had ever been there before, and they had only a slight acquaintance with Mrs. Theodore, who was not given to hospitality. Should they go to the back or front door? While they held a whispered consultation Mrs. Theodore appeared at the front door with an armful of newspapers. Deliberately she laid them down one by one on the porch floor and the porch steps, and then down the path to the very feet of her mystified callers.
“Will you please wipe your feet carefully on the grass and then walk on these papers?” she said anxiously. “I’ve just swept the house all over and I can’t have any more dust tracked in.”

So you’ve plot, excellent jokes, fabulous characters, and even some winning subplots. The only thing at odds is Anne herself. Anne’s talkative nature is subdued from the very first pages and Montgomery rarely pays it attention. Likely the reason for the change was down to that idea of growing up and maturing and in its day that probably worked; nowadays we’re more apt to question it. Technically the lack of talk (there is some, and there are some day dreams, too, just not many) means you can focus on the rest of the content, but the reality is you spend time wondering where Anne went. You might want her back.

Anne Of Avonlea is a wonderful book, and a lot more adult-orientated, but that does come at a price. Nevertheless it is still entirely worthy of your time; it’s surely one of the finest books of its day.

We make our own lives wherever we are, after all… college can only help us to do it more easily. They are broad or narrow according to what we put into them, not what we get out. Life is rich and full here… everywhere… if we can only learn how to open our whole hearts to its richness and fulness [sic].

Footnotes

1 Montgomery’s publishers had said that if the first book did well, she’d have to write sequels. In 1908 she wrote in a letter: “I’m awfully afraid if the thing takes, they’ll want me to write her through college. The idea makes me sick. I feel like the magician in the Eastern story who became the slave of the ‘jinn’ he had conjured out of the bottle.” In the next letter she sent, she calls Anne ‘detestable’ (Montgomery to Weber, 10th September 1908, and 22nd December 1908, cited in Lefebvre, 2013, p. 410).

References

Lefebvre (ed) (2013) The L.M. Montgomery Reader, Vol 1, University Of Toronto Press, Toronto

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L M Montgomery – Anne Of Green Gables

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Anne with an E – please remember that as without the E it sounds very different…

Publisher: N/A
Pages: N/A
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult/Children’s
ISBN: N/A (Vintage Classics: 978-0-099-58264-9)
First Published: 1908
Date Reviewed: 5th March 2019
Rating: 3.5/5

When a friend says she’s going to adopt an orphan to help her at home, siblings Matthew and Marilla ask her to arrange for a boy to be sent to them so that Matthew can have help on the land. The day dawns; Matthew heads to the station to collect the child but finds only a girl – there’s been a mix-up. It’s too late in the day; with no way to send Anne back, Matthew takes her home to Avonlea. The idea is to get the mix-up sorted out, but the siblings find themselves becoming attached to the peculiarly-dressed, red-headed, eleven-year-old who rarely stops talking.

Anne Of Green Gables is a fairly short novel about the new life of a neglected orphan and the impact she has on those living in her new town. Set 30-odd years before it was written, and covering Anne’s first double digit years (she ends the novel aged 16), the book offers a good span of time to get acquainted with its colourful cast of characters, its likeable heroine, and its practically idyllic setting in semi-fictional rural Canada.

The first book in a long series, Anne Of Green Gables has for some time been considered children’s fiction, the publicity materials for it looking in that direction. The story does align with younger people, however it’s worth noting that Montgomery wrote it for all ages (Wikipedia, n.d.); there’s a lot here for adults that children may not necessarily appreciate, to the extent that whilst the plot might not be particularly compelling for older readers, the rest of it is. It’s never too late to read this book.

Thankfully, the plot itself is of little import, which is just as well because it’s effectively a cycle of similar events as Anne makes a mistake (or is thought to have made a mistake, given past events) and reacts to it. Montgomery was inspired by ‘formula Ann’ orphan stories of the time, which accounts for it all – her use of Anne, with that E, relates to it (ibid.), but whilst we may have moved on from being able to appreciate that context, there is much enjoyment to be had in the author’s characters, setting, and use of humour. Albeit that the mistakes do follow a formula, they are funny in their turn; Anne gives her friend a tumbler of alcohol instead of a child-friendly cold drink, and dyes her hair green.

“Don’t be very frightened, Marilla. I was walking the ridgepole and I fell off. I expect I have sprained my ankle. But, Marilla, I might have broken my neck. Let us look on the bright side of things.”

Anne talks, a lot. She day dreams, a lot. But she’s a pretty thoughtful and clever girl. Through her monologues, Montgomery shows well the psychological effects her previous neglect has had, and you see the slight changes over time. Looking at Anne from our present-day perspective, it’s reasonable to say she may well have had ADHD1. Learning is slow but sure.

So in Anne’s monologues there is real purpose, Montgomery using her chatty heroine to show so much; it’s an interesting way of getting around telling, as Anne is actually telling people things but as a character in a story, and with her young age and obliviousness, it becomes the very definition of ‘showing’. The promise of a romance to come is given via Anne’s skirting round the name of a boy, the value of friendship shown in descriptions and ideas, and the importance of dreaming very effectively explained even though the day dreaming in the book tends to hinder work. The relationships Anne has with her friends, with the older people of Avonlea she wins over, and even with those she doesn’t get on with, are wonderfully portrayed.

For Anne to take things calmly would have been to change her nature. All “spirit and fire and dew,” as she was, the pleasures and pains of life came to her with trebled intensity. Marilla felt this and was vaguely troubled over it, realising that the ups and downs of existence would probably bear hardlyon this impulsive soul and not sufficiently understanding that the equally great capacity for delight might more than compensate.

For the repetitive cycle of events, it can be hard on occasion to keep reading without wondering if it’s going to ‘go’ anywhere, but the positives do outweigh the negatives. Anne’s general positiveness is compelling, her tendency not to conform with social rules that create discomfort is satisfying… and it’s just impossible not to like her.

Footnotes

1 For an in-the-know discussion, see the ADHD subreddit thread: Anne Shirley Had ADHD In Anne Of Green Gables

Online References

Wikipedia (n.d.) Anne Of Green Gables, accessed 5th March 2019

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Anne Brontë – Agnes Grey

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Against the odds.

Publisher: N/A
Pages: N/A
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: N/A
First Published: December 1847
Date Reviewed: 4th March 2019
Rating: 5/5

Heading towards poverty, and with a need to help her family, nineteen-year-old Agnes sets out to become a governess for the wealthy – people who had been her mother’s peers. In doing this she finds many awful moral codes, but she soldiers on, her desire to help and her hope in the good in people continuing.

Agnes Grey was Anne’s début, and is the more easy-going of her two novels. The book is an interesting mix of routine, mundane, content and highly satisfying theme work. It’s well-written and even during the low moments sports a hard-to-put-down quality. Anne takes a far shorter time to tell her tales than her more famous sisters, Charlotte in particular, and at least in the context of our present day it pays off. For this, Agnes Grey is also a lot calmer.

Anne covers a number of topics simultaneously, the most notable being the lifestyle and general attitudes of the wealthy seen from the position of a servant, and animal abuse; the book is largely based on Anne’s time as a governess, and the animal abuse included is unfortunately in context1. These aspects are very difficult to read at times; Anne details Agnes’ inability to discipline her charges due to rulings laid out by their parents, with the appalling result this has on their personal development. There are only two governess jobs in the book; Anne uses the second to show how all the wealth in the world doesn’t necessarily mean happiness, as she shows the affect of rose-tinted glasses on dreams that were ripe for the taking.

Agnes herself is an interesting character, being both winsome and somewhat unaware of herself. Her personality reflects the general purpose of the book, calm and informative, thoughtful, but there are occasions wherein she seems to misunderstand that people’s thoughts about her are in tandem with the way she comes across – she has a tendency to suggest people are, for example, snubbing her, without reflecting on what she did before that quite likely gave them to believe she wanted distance.

Religion is ever present, Anne’s devote faith in full force. However the use is temperate – it’s natural and devoid of any preaching, a simple aspect of Agnes’ character and understandably spoken of given Anne’s background. There is also a budding romance, nestled among the rest of the text in a way that means it’s important enough without crossing the genre line.

Lastly, it’s worth noting the value in the more philosophical aspects of the book. It is in Anne’s general thoughts, presented as Agnes’ musings, that the book is at its best, often transending time:

It is foolish to wish for beauty. Sensible people never either desire it for themselves or care about it in others. If the mind be well cultivated, and the heart well disposed, no one ever cares for the exterior. So said the teachers of our childhood; and so say we to the children of the present day. All very judicious and proper, no doubt, but are such assertions supported by actual evidence?

Likewise:

If a woman is fair and amiable, she is praised for both qualities, but especially the former, by the bulk of mankind: if, on the other hand, she is disagreeable in person and character, her plainness is commonly inveighed against as her greatest crime, because, to common observers, it gives the greatest offence; while, if she is plain and good, provided she is a person of retired manners and secluded life, no one ever knows of her goodness, except her immediate connections. Others, on the contrary, are disposed to form unfavourable opinions of her mind, and disposition, if it be but to excuse themselves for their instinctive dislike of one so unfavoured by nature; and visa versa with her whose angel form conceals a vicious heart, or sheds a false, deceitful charm over defects and foibles that would not be tolerated in another.

Agnes Grey is a stunning novel, in the sense of the words, what is said. It’s not difficult to see why it’s not as famous as the works of Charlotte and Emily – it’s far too calm and quite frankly far too considerate, though in a good way – but it’s worth its weight in gold.

Footnotes

1 In her biography of Charlotte, Gaskell recounts: ‘I was once speaking to her about “Agnes Grey” – the novel in which her sister Anne pretty literally describes her own experience as a governess – and alluding more particularly to the account of the stoning of the little nestlings in the presence of the parent birds. She said that none but those who had been in the position of a governess could ever realise the dark side of “respectable” human nature; under no great temptation to crime, but daily giving way to selfishness and ill-temper, till its conduct towards those dependent on it sometimes amounts to a tyranny of which one would rather be the victim than the inflicter. We can only trust in such cases that the employers err rather from a density of perception and an absence of sympathy, than from any natural cruelty of disposition. Among several things of the same kind, which I well remember, she told me what had once occurred to herself. She had been entrusted with the care of a little boy, three or four years old, during the absence of his parents on a day’s excursion, and particularly enjoined to keep him out of the stable-yard. His elder brother, a lad of eight or nine, and not a pupil of Miss Brontë’s, tempted the little fellow into the forbidden place. She followed, and tried to induce him to come away; but, instigated by his brother, he began throwing stones at her, and one of them hit her so severe a blow on the temple that the lads were alarmed into obedience. The next day, in full family conclave, the mother asked Miss Brontë what occasioned the mark on her forehead. She simply replied, “An accident, ma’am,” and no further inquiry was made; but the children (both brothers and sisters) had been present, and honoured her for not “telling tales.” From that time, she began to obtain influence over all, more or less, according to their different characters; and as she insensibly gained their affection, her own interest in them was increasing. But one day, at the children’s dinner, the small truant of the stable-yard, in a little demonstrative gush, said, putting his hand in hers, “I love ‘ou, Miss Bront&euml.” Whereupon, the mother exclaimed, before all the children, “Love the governess, my dear!”‘ (Gaskell, 1857, pp. 189-190)

References

Gaskell, Elizabeth (1857) The Life Of Charlotte Brontë, Vol 1, 2nd ed, Smith, Elder & Co, London

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Gail Honeyman – Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine

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Absolutely… positively… really…

Publisher: HarperCollins
Pages: 381
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-008-17211-4
First Published: 9th May 2017
Date Reviewed: 4th February 2019
Rating: 5/5

Eleanor’s life is orderly, if dull – breakfast, work, dinner, The Archers or television, and bed – but it works. She’s been through a lot but now has her own place to live, and apart from the irritating visits from the social workers who gawp at her when she speaks about her history, and the co-workers who joke behind her back, she reckons life is okay. She has her dependable clothes and her shopper bag/trolley, her plant from her childhood, and her mismatched furniture. But when at a concert she ‘recognises’ the singer as the man she’ll spend her life with; she also meets a new co-worker who takes a genuine interest in her, which is difficult for Eleanor to accept because he dresses far too casually and smokes. Life is about to fall away from its schedule and potentially become a lot better, and Eleanor’s not used to that at all.

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine is a book about the effects on adulthood of childhood trauma and a lack of support.

This is an incredibly well-told story. It offers both a first-hand source (if fictional) and a lot of sub-textual information for the reader about what it’s like to be apart from society for reasons that the person in question has had no control over. It offers a glimpse of how ‘othering’ such situations can be, and requests more emphatic assessments of the wider, factual, world.

Honeyman’s book is powerful, showing all the different factors of Eleanor’s life – the upbringing via memories and impact, the here and now, the pitiful ‘support’ she receives. However it is in the plotting itself and the ‘showing’ in the larger sense – show not tell – that the book is so effective. Through the use of the first-person narrative and never wavering from displaying all the socially awkwardness, ignorance, and learned-intolerance that Eleanor has, you get a complete picture of everything – why Eleanor is as she is, how others react and why. (Eleanor describes people’s reactions to what she says, enabling you to see and fully understand what’s happening even when she doesn’t – which is the usual situation.) Honeyman does all this slowly; never losing sight of the fact a novel should provide entertainment of some sort, she ekes out the story itself whilst being bit swifter when it comes to describing who Eleanor is; even if you get a solid idea early on as to what’s happened, not everything is provided until the end, which leaves Honeyman able to show Eleanor’s progression towards healing and remembering exactly why she was put into care.

Of the foster care and children’s homes of Eleanor’s past, Honeyman is blunt, detailing situations that would still warrant question, such as a child being moved on because her grief and trauma manifested in ways that people couldn’t – or wouldn’t – handle. Honeyman does not analyse the receptions the young Eleanor received, instead her focus is on how an unstable home life continue to impact her. Of the support the character receives in adulthood, Honeyman states clearly in subtext: not good enough. Eleanor’s been given a flat, filled with second-hand, often inappropriate, furniture. She found her own job. The social workers don’t actually do anything beyond showing up infrequently to check she’s okay and – as it’s often a new person – to simply gawp in surprise at what they read in their files. It’s down to society, who doesn’t have the knowledge or experience, to actually help her, and as Honeyman shows, Eleanor is a lucky one, finding people who truly care.

It’s difficult being in the character’s head – her mother taught her intolerance of many different types of people and Eleanor struggles to push away that programming – and for a while in the book, Eleanor’s life is dull, but the writing keeps you going. Due to her mother’s programming, the English is an interesting mix of language, beginning in a fashion most correct and slowly progressing towards a combination of very correct English and very modern phrasing.

Needless to say the characterisation is top-notch, the main characters in particular brought fully to life.

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine is difficult to take in but not difficult to read, the author wanting her readers to understand everything clearly. And it’s worth every moment, the literary features culminating in a fantastic whole but each being enjoyable – in a literary way – in themselves.

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