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The Engagement, By Chloe Hooper
A woman's erotic association with a wealthy older man provides a different shade of thrill
The Australian author Chloe Hooper's second novel is a complex psychological thriller that draws on the rich literary history of madwomen in the attic, from Jane Eyre and Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper" to Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca.
Liese Campbell is a young Englishwoman working at her uncle's real-estate agency in Australia, having been made redundant from her job as an interior architect in London. Liese is aimlessly whiling away her life, but her debts are mounting. So when a misunderstanding after an illicit liaison with one of her clients – Alexander Colquhoun, a wealthy, handsome, middle-aged farmer looking for a pied-à-terre in the city – leads to him paying her for her services, she does nothing to set the record straight.
The arrangement becomes regular, the luxury apartments they meet in the stage-sets for their fantasies. Alexander's desire is fuelled by the heady stories Liese concocts of her other clients and their debasing demands, while she discovers the "aphrodisiacal" qualities of a thick wad of banknotes. Then Liese announces she's leaving the country, and Alexander proposes a final long weekend at his house, Warrowill, in the Victoria bush.
Attracted by the unusually large sum on offer, Liese accepts, but as Alexander drives them deeper into the "vast, wild disorder" of the "weather-blasted and dirty and hard" landscape, Liese can smell the "scent of ambush" in the air.
In fittingly Gothic style, Warrowill turns out to be a Victorian mansion built "precisely so one would feel at its mercy". For good measure Hooper throws in locked doors, a wardrobe filled with an unaccounted-for woman's clothes, butchered animals, and a series of poison-pen letters. Liese has been playing a game, the rules of which she thought Alexander knew, but alone in the Outback she finds herself trapped in the fantasies of her own making.
The Engagement is shot through with a deeply erotic charge without being explicitly pornographic. The slow mounting of tension – elevated to something of an art-form in Hooper's nimble hand – is the real S&M experience, reminding us of the fine line between fear and arousal, or "how close a nightmare can be to an exquisite dream". This is a novel about the power of mind-games; fantasies bent "out of shape" and imaginings "gone bad". The Engagement is no Fifty Shades of Grey; its kicks, and kicks in the teeth, are much more subtle.
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