'The Engagement' by Chloe Hooper
'The Engagement' by Chloe Hooper, Hamish Hamilton; $29.99
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Liese Campbell has been retrenched from her job as an architect in London and has come out to Australia to work in her uncle’s real estate agency. She has debts to Mr Visa and her new job leads to an arrangement with Alexander Colquhoun, a grazier who has been looking for a flat in Melbourne. They meet and have sex in the properties to which she has access, and in return he gives her much-needed money. As Chloe Hooper’s second novel opens, Liese is on her way to Alexander’s house, a bluestone Victorian pile in the Western District, out of mobile range and half an hour’s drive from the nearest town. The first morning there, she starts to wonder if something odd is going on.
Hooper’s first work of fiction, A Child’s Book of True Crime, was also narrated by a woman who has turned away from niceness and fast got out of her depth. A primary school teacher sleeping with one of her pupils’ fathers, she says: “People always tell you, over and over, in the most stern, boring way, ‘You have to pay.’ How unfortunate that they are right, and how surprising to have no influence over the price.” In The Engagement, Liese may be the one who is paid, but there is another price: Alexander has very strange ideas about what he thinks he has bought.
These compromised (anti-?) heroines are fearful of others’ agendas, and operate from a shame giving rise to a detached alertness. They are good vehicles for writing that looks warily at a threatening world, staffed by people with opaque though clearly unsavoury motives, and many pages of The Engagement are burnished with the smartness, eloquence and dry wit of Hooper’s prose, her sense of atmosphere and her insights into sex and the fragile self.
As it dramatises this subject, though, The Engagement introduces some rather overdone Gothic motifs: the description of the mouldering old house is in itself so fastidiously spooky that Hooper hardly needs to add slaughtered wildlife, or have Alexander’s parents dead in a car accident. Liese tells us early on that she laughs when she is uneasy, but an ironic remark she later makes about her predicament could be read, uncharitably perhaps, as if she herself can’t quite take seriously the direction in which her creator has taken things. In any case, the willingness to accept all this may depend on how much one likes Gothic, and plenty of people do. But if Liese’s encounter with this Establishment weirdo is a move up for her socially, at times it was hard not to think that Hooper’s gift is slumming it a bit. That the gift is there is undeniable.