Choke Chain by Jason Donald has a long emotional reach. Set in 1980’s apartheid South Africa it narrates the Thorne’s dysfunctional family life with clarity and compassion. Domesticity, gender politics and inequality are explored kitchen-sink style in this simmering story where two brothers, Alex, aged twelve, and Kevin, eight, grow up in poverty with an abusive dad to boot.
Whilst the two boys learn how to manage the inevitable injustice of peer politics out on the streets, they’re also exposed to physical abuse, low-level crime and racist ideologies from their father, Bruce. Bruce Thorne is macho and emotionally challenged, a man largely fuelled by volatility who wants his boys to learn the language of conflict, the way of the fist. He is a man hell bent on teaching his family who to hate because it’s all he knows.
The stand out feature of this book for me is Donald’s emotional restraint. The novel is a real exhibit of narrative control. Bruce Thorne uses routine violence and emotional abuse that is drip-fed throughout the story in subtle, coercive ways so that the narrative has an accumulative effect. By the time the family starts to really dismantle under Bruce’s punitive regime even the reader is hard-pushed to justify precisely which of Bruce’s emotional manipulations are worst and where it all went wrong. Structurally, this gets reinforced by Donald’s use of short chapters, each maybe only two or three pages long. Every chapter provides economical bursts of family life told in Alex’s memorable voice using innocuous titles such as ‘Onion’, ‘Ears’ ‘Avocado’, an inventory of familiar words which take on sinister emotional associations with each singular act of cruelty.
With a career history as a child social worker it’s natural for me to scrutinise abuse in fiction. Much of fiction about parental cruelty or neglect sees authors skimping on moments of brightness and joy as though by bleaching out all positivity it might lend the story enough sensitivity. Fortunately this approach is entirely absent from Choke Chain. Donald achieves balance by tuning the simple beauties of childhood against the boy’s turbulent reality, contrasts which strengthen the narrative overall. A lucid example is from ‘Blue’ when Alex takes Kevin out to look at the sky:
‘We lay in silence, sandwiched between the green and the blue. Everything was silent and simple. There was either up or down, earth or sky, green or blue. I lay there for a minute, my mind as empty as the sky, letting the blue seep into me.’
There is distillation to the prose. Alex’s sense of peace and freedom here is reduced to colours, a jus of sensory language that refreshes. The first-person narrative in Alex’s perspective articulates the emotional complexities of adolescence and subtle turns of phrase give rise to appropriately childish and yet deeply perceptive observations of human behaviour, such as when Grace, Alex’s mother is crying: ‘She cried with the sound turned off’ and later when Alex is perplexed about his masculine identity: ‘Whenever I tried to act like a man it always came out as boredom or anger.’
This novel evokes the eighties in spades. Nostalgia that transports you to the past is uplifting and at times had me nodding in identification. There is Kentucky Fried Chicken in a bucket and GI Joes, there is Wolverine, GTI cars, afternoons doing wheelies on BMX bikes on the sun-licked streets with Popeye on the box. The only drawback for me within these eighties icons was the use of the outdated choke chain; an item stereotypically associated with working class dog owners and breeders. Early on, Bruce teaches Alex how to do a choke hold and he nearly loses consciousness in an incident of abuse that makes for uncomfortable reading. Later, Bruce gives his sons an undernourished dog they don’t really want and insists they train it using a choke chain. The resonance of correcting a dog’s behaviour with such a crude instrument and its parallels with Bruce’s parenting was not lost on me but I felt it was too obvious a comparison when Donald had already achieved such a tensile emotional balance already. That said, it’s a minor burr in a strong debut.
This is a novel about boys becoming men from a position of poverty. It focuses on social inequality and racism but predominantly holds its lens up to the insidious patterns of paternal abuse. Vibrant and with lashings of discomfort, Donald does a fine job of bringing (extra) ordinary domestic lives to the page.
Choke Chain is published by Vintage and is available to purchase here.
Read our review of Jason Donald’s Dalila here.
Jason Donald was born in Scotland and grew up in South Africa. He studied English Literature and Philosophy at St Andrews University and, in 2005, graduated from Glasgow University’s Creative Writing Masters Degree programme with distinction. His first novel, Choke Chain, was published by Cape in 2009.
Reviewed by Rachael Smart
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