“It devastated me,” says Sofie Laguna of Nick Broomfield’s film about American serial killer Aileen Wuornos, who was convicted of killing six men and executed by lethal injection in 2002. It wasn’t, however, the obvious discomfort such a film would provoke that disturbed Laguna, instead it was the grim, desperate, dreadful childhood that Aileen endured.
“Her childhood was impossible and I was outraged on her behalf,” she says. “It didn’t seem there was any chance of hope for her. I couldn’t bear the feelings the film gave me. I wanted to write a book that might give that child a voice, and my own feelings a place.”
And so began her American story of Aileen – from childhood to death row. But as often happens in life, circumstances change. Laguna fell pregnant and soon after embarked on writing a series for children, Our Australian Girl, before contemplating a return to Aileen’s story.
“Her story was always there, it hadn’t left me,” she says. “In 2012, when considering my next project, I said to a friend, ‘my choice is between a fictionalised account of Alieen’s story or Jimmy Flick from Altona’. My friend said ‘time for Jimmy Flick’, and Aileen was again put aside.”
Writing about Jimmy Flick from Altona was a good move. That novel, The Eye of the Sheep, went on to win the 2015 Miles Franklin Literary Award. After the whirlwind had passed, she was ready to move on. “I don’t struggle to let stories go; it’s a natural process, like having a baby. It’s another kind of baby!” she says.
Her old story of Aileen lingered. It hadn’t budged. Laguna pulled it back out last year. The time was right to return to the memories that had shattered her all those years ago.
“The early months of writing were pretty challenging. I was a bit tortured about whether I could live up to the Miles Franklin,” she says.
However much time had passed since she had worked on the story, and what she had started those years ago was no longer suitable for the story she wished to tell.
“When I read over the scenes I had written I felt foolish,” she says. “How on earth did I think I could write an authentically American story, and why did I want to? Why couldn’t I set it in the land and culture that I knew? I took ownership of the story in a new way. Justine (The Choke’s main character) did not suffer Aileen’s childhood – nobody did but Aileen. It was too weighted to fictionalise. Too horrific and unbalanced. Too unbelievable.”
The story went on to become The Choke, Laguna’s latest release, which is a sweet and sour tale of childhood and the dangerous world that can often surround it. It’s both a story of the tenacity of family love, and the atrocious failings they are capable of.
The story is set in early seventies rural Victoria and follows 11-year-old Justine, a girl living with her paternal grandfather, Pop, on his three acres. Nearby is The Choke, a section of the Murray River where “the river was at its thinnest, the banks like giant hands around a neck.” When half-brothers Kirk and Steve aren’t staying over, Justine spends her time alone. Although she struggles to read (“I saw letters backwards”), her curious observations of the environment paint vivid images of the wild Australian bush.
“I relished setting the novel in my own country. So much material – beautiful and funny and familiar. I could use the vernacular, I could go to the locations – literally drive there and immerse myself in the natural settings I had chosen. I knew its cast of characters. I knew the highways, the weather, the redgums and I could get to know the river.”
Justine’s Pop wears the torturous emotional scars of a long stint as a POW on the Burma Railway. He leads a solitary life, relying on White Ox cigarettes and beer to pass the days. His only companions are his Isa Brown chickens, ‘Cockyboy’ the Rooster, and The Big Man - John Wayne - whom he admires fondly on his old beaten up television.
Justine was only three when her mother disappeared. “I never left Pop’s after Donna split. It was me that split her. I was breech, waiting inside her on my knees. I thought that was the right way to come out,” says Justine, referring to her awkward birth. Her father, Ray, a strange and shadowy figure, breezes in and out of Justine’s life, having offloaded the responsibility of his daughter to his ailing father. To the young Justine, her father is a sort of cult hero, an unflinching warrior of the land. But as Justine matures, she senses, without fully comprehending, her father’s violent and destructive ways.
“I became deeply connected to my characters, more and more, word by word,” says Laguna. “It became an escape for me, from the challenges of ordinary life. I could go there, to that world, over and over and over, like being in a trance. The Choke gave me a double life. I wanted to go there, be there in that world. I wrote in the dark living room before the children woke. I was always tired, but the novel felt like it put lights inside me. I am so glad and grateful to it.”
Justine, in her ratty, stained clothes, discovers true friendship with a physically impaired classmate, Michael. But it is Justine who requires the relationship, not Michael, despite him being burdened with crutches, broken speech, frequent shaking and jerking (“like someone you couldn’t see was pulling the strings”) and ridicule from his classmates. The friendship is an escape-world for two young people up against it.
“I really needed Michael and his family in the story; they provided relief, love and joy,” Laguna says. “They allowed me to show that Justine is capable of deep enquiry, imaginative thought, fresh and lively conversation, and happiness. Michael is bright, underestimated, and warm. I adored him.”
The Choke is a delicate portrait of purity within hardship, often subtle and hidden. This is reflected in the ending, where again, softness emerges from its grim surrounds.
This article was published on 25 September 2017 on the Writers Victoria website.