The Engagement

Chloe Hooper

Published by Jonathan Cape 24 January 2013

256pp, hardback, £16.99

Reviewed by Charlotte Moore

 

Liese Campbell came to Australia to reinvent herself. Everything about her old life in England – her family’s view of her, the design job from which she’d been ‘let go’ – was flawed. Here in Melbourne, showing prospective buyers round swanky, soulless apartments, discreetly sexy yet businesslike in her tight-fitting grey suit, she can control the way others see her, adopt whatever persona she fancies. Or can she?

There’s something profoundly unstable about Liese, for all her cool intelligence. She is self-obsessed and yet curiously detached from herself. ‘I was more curvaceous than suited my personality; carrying around all this pale flesh seemed indiscreet, like I’d made some lewd genetic choice.’ When she meets Alexander Coloqhoun, her well-concealed weirdness responds to something similar in him. A tall, handsome man in a business suit, looking to buy an expensive apartment...outwardly, there’s nothing remarkable. But ‘something about his body ...embarrassed him...The more he disguised his nature, the more aware of it I was.’

They start having sex in the empty apartments. Liese immediately sees that this is the answer to her  short-term future. He pays her; she can indulge his fantasies for just long enough to gather enough money, and then she can leave Australia and forget about him. At first, she’s the one in charge. ‘Only a hundred?’ she says, the first time he offers her money, and helps herself to a lot more. But then, just as she’s about to leave him and Australia behind in search of fresh adventure, he offers her a serious sum of money to spend three days alone with him at Warrowill, his inherited estate in western Victoria. ‘Dear Liese (or whoever you are)’ is how he  begins his letter.

Who is she, indeed? She’s not a prostitute – Alexander is the only man who has ever paid her. At least, she’s pretty sure she’s not a prostitute, but months of dealing in real estate, selling the false intimacy of ‘the lifestyle dream’, has blurred the boundaries. ‘I’d arrive at some stranger’s house to unfurl and plant my flag in his front garden bed: OPEN FOR INSPECTION.’ Ambiguity pervades all her dealings. Will this weekend in the outback lead her to a clearer understanding of herself?

It will not surprise the reader to find that Warrowill is a faded Victorian version of Bluebeard’s castle, littered with unexplained relicts of other women, its exits locked, every detail controlled by its master. But this is no pornographic indulgence in sadomasochistic cliché. Chloe Hooper subverts the Gothic fairytale tropes to describe an extended mind game which is chilling and credible – and, since you ask, powerfully anti-erotic.

Hooper is a very clever writer. Her prose is uncluttered, but every phrase is packed with meaning. The themes of freedom and entrapment are skilfully interwoven into her evocation of the vast but enclosing and unpeopled landscape. And just when I thought I could bear no more of the one-on-one psychological torture, she throws in a bizarre dinner party, a group of grotesque guests (including an appalling woman priest). The black comedy of this episode, which seems to offer a lifeline to Liese but ends up drawing the net even tighter, is worthy of Evelyn Waugh.

Hooper is looking at a lot more than a gruesome encounter between a foolish young woman and a deranged man. She forces us to scrutinize the institution of marriage, the illusion of personal choice for women in a post-feminist world, the way strings attach themselves to any transaction involving money and sex. But this is a novel to admire rather than enjoy. If I’d been in search of sexual thrills, I’d want my money back.

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