Jonathan Cape £16.99
Review: The Engagement, By Chloe Hooper
Why one's narrator should not get into cars with strange men
Sunday 20 January 2013
In the opening paragraph of Part Two of this patchy, frustrating psychological thriller, our narrator, Liese Campbell, says this: "How naive I'd been, how ridiculously naive."
Those seven words neatly encapsulate all that is wrong with The Engagement. There is much to admire in Chloe Hooper's writing, but the novel is let down by a narrator whose ongoing blindness to the danger in which she places herself becomes increasingly annoying, to the point where I felt it should more accurately have been titled "The Enragement".
Liese is an English woman in her twenties who has fled from her homeland to Melbourne. In her former life, she was a jobbing architect who had built up a pile of debt. When we meet her she is slumming it at her uncle's estate agency, showing prospective buyers around properties. She also uses these empty properties for sexual liaisons with Alexander Colquhoun, an earthy but rich farmer who pays her handsomely for the privilege. Liese accepts the money with one eye on her credit card bills, and allows him to believe she's a prostitute.
She has had just about enough of this arrangement, though, and is planning on escaping again, this time to Asia. But the book opens with her receiving a letter from Alexander offering her a large amount of money (we never find out exactly how much) to come and spend a long weekend at his country pile before she leaves Australia.
Liese expresses doubts about Alexander's obsessive nature on page one, and further doubts are incrementally drip-fed to the reader during a series of flashbacks detailing the pair's sexual encounters. Cumulatively, they amount to a level of concern that would have any sane person running screaming to the nearest police station for protection.
But not so for Liese, who happily jumps into Alexander's Mercedes and journeys to the back of beyond with him, without telling anyone where she's going and without any kind of escape plan, should the situation get messy. Oh, and there's no mobile phone reception, naturally.
Sure enough, on arrival at Alexander's dilapidated Victorian mansion, it turns out that his sexual obsession with Liese goes way beyond anything she had anticipated, and she finds herself in a whole heap of trouble.
The prose drips with a certain amount of Gothic menace, and Hooper's powers of description, especially of Alexander's creaky old house, are strong. She conjures up plenty of atmosphere, but any tension is punctured by the heavy-handed dialogue and clumsy interactions of the novel's two main players. The menace spills over into a melodramatic campness, especially during a ridiculous dinner party, late on, in which character motivations and behaviours fly out of the window.
The subject of sexual obsession is ripe for examination, of course, and Hooper's implication that Liese is complicit in her downfall is intriguing. But such things have to be housed in a plot that doesn't stretch the credulity of the reader beyond breaking point. Hooper's previous book, The Tall Man, which received praise from Philip Roth and Peter Carey as well as winning several prizes, was a work of non-fiction. Hooper might be able to tell a true story, but on this evidence, she struggles to write a believable fictional one.
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