Choke Chain, by Jason Donald

An innocent at risk of corruption
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South Africa can be a brutal spot for human relations. This novel opens with a storm of monstrous hailstones, some the size of a fist, deftly symbolising the strife in the story to follow. Alex is 12, the eldest of two brothers in an impoverished white neighbourhood during the 1980s. At his age, children possess a fleeting maturity, but also a vulnerability: poor mentoring and mistreatment can cause serious problems. Alex is delicately poised.

His father, Bruce, resorts to every trick going to get by. Part of this might relate to low status – maybe he judges it fair enough to blag and bully his way to a few extra bucks. Bruce involves his sons in a petty fraud in a department store, and then a higher-level con, when he torches the family car for the insurance money. When Alex's younger brother starts being bullied at school, Bruce shows the boys some self-defence moves. He is a braggart, not above showing off his physical prowess at their expense.

There is comedy in Bruce's macho misbehaviour, but the boys' mother Grace can't see it. She digs a pit in the garden to cope with her feelings, and it is clear that her marriage is in an equally deep hole. Bruce is a rogue male with little respect for social boundaries, and the family begins to unravel.

This is Jason Donald's first novel. His writing is clear and ungilded as he captures the experience of growing up under big African skies, and shows us Alex's world in all its freshness and promise. A few days by the sea become an enormous adventure. Back home, the vicissitudes of school become intensified by the instability of Alex's home situation. Throughout, Donald keeps the novel's central question in play: will Alex's character be diminished by his father's corrupted outlook?

The plot segments slot together a little too neatly, and by the end Bruce becomes something of a villain from melodrama. Nevertheless, Donald's sensitive descriptions of Alex's fragility in the face of the downward arc of his parents' relationship remains involving. This is an exceptional debut.