Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 25, 2012

The Engagement, by Chloe Hooper

I was looking forward to reading Chloe Hooper’s second novel.   She burst onto the literary scene with an eerie novel of sex and betrayal, A Child’s Book of True Crime , which was shortlisted for the Orange Prize 2002 and a New York Times Notable Book.   Since then, however, she has become more well-known as a highly regarded author of non-fiction.  She has won a Walkley Award (Australia’s awards for excellence in journalism) and The Tall Man  won the 2009 New South Wales Premier’s Literary Award for Non-fiction, the 2008 Western Australian Premier’s Book Awards, the 2009 ABIA General Non-fiction Book of the Year Award and 2009 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award Nettie Palmer Prize for Non-fiction. (See my review).

Ten years after her first novel comes The Engagement, another book exploring sex and betrayal, set not in Tasmania as A Child’s Book of True Crime was, but on an isolated property in the Grampians in the Western District of Victoria.

I don’t read many thrillers, but a convincing psychological thriller will keep me up all night just like anybody else.  This one did too, even though it lacks the flourishes that made A Child’s Book of True Crime so bizarre.  It’s more straightforward: a female gets herself into a sticky situation with a creepy man and might not make it home to tell the tale.   This novel seems to signal a move away from literary fiction towards genre fiction.

Liese Campbell is an English refugee from the GFC.  Her mild British snootiness fits nicely into her Australian uncle’s high-end real estate business where she sells swanky apartments to the well-heeled (Australia having escaped the recessions that have bedevilled economies around the world).  One day she meets Alexander Colquhoun, heir to a property in the Western District where Victoria’s pastoral aristocrats still play out their fantasies of the British upper class.  For reasons unexplained he is seeking a property in Melbourne and so she escorts him through one soulless place after another until on an impulse she decides to disturb the pristine bedding of the apartment and so begins a strange affair.  It’s not quite Belle de Jour because the motivations are different but there are allusions to domination and bondage.  (No, as far as I can tell since I haven’t read FSOG, The Engagement isn’t attached to the bandwagon of that book.  There are no lascivious sex scenes, it’s mercifully restrained).

Short of cash (the Visa card and a lack of self-discipline about handbags) Liese becomes his call girl.  Luxury apartments become the stage for their assignations in a strange fantasy where they vie for control in a bizarre kind of game: she titillates him with stories about her other clients (when in fact she has no others).  Liese’s source of information about how these relationships work is the media, and as far as she’s concerned this game is a nice little earner and everything is under control. (The book is written from her PoV in a first person narrative).

Well of course it’s not under control, not when she accepts the engagement for a long weekend on the property, a gothic mansion á la Australia complete with faded decor and a ruined garden, spooky maze, and bulls to deter escape across the paddocks.  It’s miles away from anywhere, and the station manager has the weekend off so there is no else one around.  Mobile phones don’t work and in repeated displays of his culinary skills, Alexander shows his prowess with butchering animals of one sort or another.

The psychological tension is created by Liese’s vacillating attitudes to the change in Alexander and the implied menace of his proposal but I shall say no more for fear of spoilers.

Author: Chloe Hooper
Title: The Engagement
Publisher: Penguin Australia, 2012
ISBN: 9781926428376
Source: Review copy courtesy of Penguin Australia

Availability:
Fishpond: The Engagement


Responses

  1. Chloe Hooper is a fine writer, but after reading her fascinating and passionate account of a black man’s horrific virtual murder in custody – ‘The Tall Man’ – I can’t imagine relating to the same author writing fiction. I may seem prejudiced, and probably am, because your review of ‘The Engagement’ was, as usual, outstanding.

    • Thanks, Ken, you are too generous!

  2. I am glad to hear you say that The Engagement lacks the flourishes of True Crime. I read that a little while and I found it very… unique. I was very confused by it. It was so black and I don’t think I enjoyed it when all was said and done. Having said that, I am still very curious to read another piece of fiction by her so I hope to give this a try.

    • Hi Becky, I hadn’t thought of this until now, but if you look at her writing as a whole, she appears to have a rather dark view of the world in general. This one is dark too in the sense that there is no one to trust …

  3. This sounds like my kind of book — alas, not available in UK until late January. I did very much love (if that is the right word) The Tall Man when I read it a couple of years ago.

    • Yes, I think you’d like it, Kim:) Don’t start reading it late at night if you’ve got work in the morning!


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