Choke Chain - Jason Donald
For his debut novel, Dundonian Jason Donald has drawn on his summers as a child in South Africa to produce something, shocking, meditative and affecting. Claire Sawers meets him
‘I found it difficult torturing an eight-year-old boy, but I knew I had to.’ The couple at the table next to Jason Donald shoot him a sideways glance over the top of their coffee cups. He definitely doesn’t seem like the torturing kind. He carries on, speaking in a gentle, slow mix of Glaswegian and South African vowels.
‘The trick is creating a character that you’re really rooting for. You grow to love him; you start finding him funny, or thinking he’s cute. Then I had to do horrible things to him. That was pretty hard.’
Donald is not a sadistic guy. In fact when we meet in Glasgow’s Rio Café, a few underground stops from where he lives with his wife, he’s more of a smiling, intelligent, insist-on-paying-the-bill type of guy. But for his debut novel, an uncomfortable, moving look at one bullying dad’s effect on his two young sons, he had to get inside the head of someone cruel and unusual.
Bruce Thorne is the man of the house, and he doesn’t want his sons growing up to be sissies. In his world, being strong and streetwise means knowing how to scam your way into a free hamburger, winning the fight by always throwing the first punch, and generally showing the rest of the world who’s boss.
‘Bruce is the sort of guy that’s always blameless,’ explains Donald. ‘He’s not beholden to the rules; he’s special. And if something goes wrong, it’s the other guy’s fault.’ Raised on a diet of Chuck Norris movies and bare knuckle fights, 12-year old Alex and his younger brother Kevin spend their days hovering somewhere between awe and terror. With a ticking time bomb at the centre of the family, it’s not long before Bruce’s mood swings and lies cause the family to implode.
The action takes place in 1980s South Africa, where Donald spent his childhood. Born in Dundee, with a South African mum and Scottish dad, he moved to Pretoria aged two and returned to Scotland when he was 16. ‘South Africa definitely has a sense of danger about it; a feeling of pressure building. You always have to watch your back.’
He remembers watching riots on TV, or being bullied by Afrikaans boys at school, but insists the book is not autobiographical. ‘My childhood was fabulous, really. These aren’t my memoirs, or some sort of revenge novel,’ he laughs.
Although he admits his own father is ‘a difficult man’ who he hasn’t seen for six years now, Donald says the book is fictional – sewn together from memories of his basketball coach, other kid’s dads, or people he saw in the street. Before being published, it had already received praise from the author Janice Galloway, won him a Scottish Variety Award nomination and secured him Scottish Arts Council funding for his second novel.
‘I wanted to create this macho perspective on the world, seen by the kind of guy who wears t-shirts that say things like “I do all my own stunts” or “Female Body Inspector”, and who thinks it’s fine to teach his son a choke hold. Writing about my own life would have been far too restrictive.’
Donald realised he wanted his first book to explore masculinity and family relationships after spreading out all the short stories and poems he’d written while studying for his Masters in creative writing at Glasgow University. ‘There were definite themes emerging. This same family kept appearing in my writing, with these same four people. I wanted to get closer to them and use them to discover some emotional truths.’
Although he admits he found it tough writing the passages where Bruce gets the upper hand over his sons, he also found it fun writing a character whose moral code comes from a distorted, old school notion of cowboy manliness. ‘In his head he’s some kind of hero, when actually he’s just this small time guy, who gets a kick out of stealing a cup of coffee, or winning a wrestling match with a 12-year-old.’
Set under the purple jacaranda trees of a South African summer, with braais by the poolside or trips to the beach at Durban, the novel reads like a hazy, beautifully photographed Polaroid of childhood – albeit one that is slowly being crushed by Bruce’s menacing grip. While there are dark moments in which Bruce tries to hammer his warped views home, there are also feather-light passages where the boys spend their afternoons swapping Marvel superhero cards, talking about computer games or doing wheelies on their bikes.
‘I think a lot of writers from South Africa, just like writers from Bosnia or Northern Ireland, often feel some sort of responsibility to write about the politics of that place,’ says Donald. ‘I deliberately wanted to write something very domestic instead. But I also wanted to let the reader feel what it’s like to live inside this comfortable, white bubble.’
Although he focuses on the power trip of a bad father, Donald thinks Bruce’s superiority complex is the sort of mentality that also leads to sexism, racism and bigotry. ‘It’s back to that thing of blaming the ‘other’ guy, whether it’s a woman, or a black man, or someone who talks a different language. Walking about with that attitude, sooner or later it’s going to find an outlet somewhere,’ he shrugs.
Growing up under apartheid, Donald saw first-hand the ‘complicated moral positions’ that people often found themselves in. Like the Thornes in Choke Chain, Donald’s family had a black, live-in housekeeper. ‘If a family gives work to a black woman who has three kids to support, are you helping them? Or are you just strengthening the apartheid system? Are you reinforcing the ‘slave and master’ stereotype, and taking away their dignity?’ He deliberately kept politics as a backdrop to the main plotline, though, as he wanted to ‘show things, rather than deliver a lecture.’
He hopes the book will raise a few questions about gender politics and family life. ‘I love films like The Squid and the Whale, [director Noah Baumbach’s true recollection of living through a divorce in 1980s Brooklyn] where you see a family breaking up from all angles. I wanted to show the struggle of all the characters to find their sense of what’s the right and the wrong thing to do.’
Donald has already started work on book two, a Glasgow-set story of asylum seekers, but is excited to see how readers react to the Thorne family.
‘The best thing would be knowing that people are left wondering how the characters are getting on after they close the book.’
Choke Chain is out on Thu 19 Feb, published by Jonathan Cape.
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