Today I’m doing something a little different.
Australian author Kate Belle has stopped by to review The Engagement by Chloe Hooper. I’ve read many reviews about this book and I’ve always been left feeling uncertain whether I would enjoy this book or not and after reading Kate’s review that still hasn’t changed!
Kate is a multi-published author who writes dark, sensual contemporary women’s fiction. She lives, writes and loves in Melbourne, juggling her strange, secret affairs with her male characters with her much loved partner and daughter and a menagerie of neurotic pets.
Kate holds a tertiary qualification in chemistry, half a diploma in naturopathy and a diploma in psychological astrology. Kate believes in living a passionate life and has ridden a camel through the Australian desert, fraternised with hippies in Nimbin, had a near birth experience and lived on nothing but porridge and a carrot for 3 days.
Thanks Lauren for hosting me on Australian Bookshelf. I’ve had limited time to review books this year, so appreciate an opportunity to get back on the horse again.
I’ve been a fan of Chloe Hooper’s work ever since I discovered The Tall Man, a confronting and revealing investigation into the events surrounding the death of Mulrunji Doomadgee while in police custody on Palm Island. I was so impressed with the clarity and insight of her writing, I immediately sourced a copy of her first novel, A Child’s Book of True Crime, which impressed me deeply.
The Engagement is Hooper’s second novel, a psychological thriller released around the same time as the world was seized by 50 Shades mania and consequently it got a bit lost among the silly hoo-ha over that far less worthy work. I wasn’t even aware she’d written a second novel until May this year and it’s been sitting patiently on my bookshelf waiting for me.
Having started it with enthusiasm and high hopes, I finished it feeling like my head had been well and truly messed with. I’m not generally a reader of thrillers, so you’ll have to take into account my naivety when I say: I suspect head messing is exactly what Hooper was aiming for.
The story itself takes place over a June long weekend on a remote property in Western Victoria. The protagonist, Liese, is a young English architect who has come to Australia after being made redundant in the UK and escaping massive debt resulting from a shopping addiction. Her uncle, a Melbourne based real estate agent, provides her with a job through which she meets Alexander, an older, conservative farmer seeking to buy a city apartment.
To be honest I found the development of Liese’s relationship with Alexander a bit of a stretch, even before they spent the weekend together in his grand old mansion in the country. At their first meeting she initiates an ‘arrangement’ with him where she shows him properties and he pays her to have sex with him in them. She becomes addicted to the cash, seeing her debt rapidly disappear, and allows him to believe the real estate job is a front for an escort service.
After only two chapters I was feeling cold and disconnected and I was surprised at the similarity in voice to Hooper’s first novel, which also featured a young female protagonist. Both books have been written in first person and both characters come across as somewhat socially isolated and dispassionate in their dealings other people. Liese’s introversion and detached view of the world made her hard for me to identify with.
This disconnection was further reinforced once Liese and Alexander arrive at his property. It’s miles from anywhere and Hooper’s descriptions of the bleak and isolated surroundings, the creepy half-lived in old house filled with relics of Alexander’s family, and the still and endless paddocks create a powerful atmosphere of loneliness.
What ensues over the next three days is tension filled and confusing. Our unreliable narrator moves deeper and deeper into anxiety as Alexander turns her assumptions about him and about their relationship up-side-down and inside-out. It’s hard to tell (for both Liese and the reader) if Alexander is genuine, a fair-dinkum sociopath, or if he’s just messing with her head because he’s paid for the privilege.
Liese soon realises she is trapped on the remote property. No one, not even she, knows where she is. It’s a poignant position for Hooper to put her in because it doesn’t take much from there to undermine her shaky sense of self. When Alexander presents Liese with fake letters, supposedly from anonymous former clients, he causes Liese to question her sense of identity and even her own memory. Hooper uses this device to explore some interesting ideas about relationships, sex and marriage, sexual identity, conditioning and power.
At a story level though I was surprised at how intensely Liese became emotionally caught up in Alexander’s ruse and how quickly she gave into his power game. Granted, she was afraid because she didn’t know what Alexander was capable of and vulnerable because she was in a completely foreign environment. Still, she seemed smart and sensible enough to handle it and I was disappointed at her inability to take some control of the weird situation she found herself in. At no stage did I really believe she was under threat of being harmed, no matter how strangely Alexander acted. I kept wondering why she didn’t just take her chances and escape when he wasn’t home, walk back to the road they came in on and hitch a ride away from his craziness.
This probably says more about me than the book though. I’m not familiar with thriller genre, so I might well be stomping on completely acceptable plot development that is common within it.
Nonetheless, Hooper’s writing sparkles cold and clear like crystal and the way she integrates setting with character is utterly gripping. She leaves the reader constantly questioning who to believe, what is the truth, and wondering where it will end. Tension builds slowly toward a compelling and somewhat frightening climax and a final perfect sentence that left me with the feeling Hooper had just messed with my head in the same way Alexander had messed with Liese’s.
The Engagement is a riveting read, though its style won’t suit everyone. The Tall Man remains my favourite of Hooper’s books, and even though I’m still not certain whether I actually liked The Engagement or not, I’m very glad I read it.
Kate’s latest release, The Yearning:
It’s 1978 in a country town and a dreamy fifteen year old girl’s world is turned upside down by the arrival of the substitute English teacher. Solomon Andrews is beautiful, inspiring and she wants him like nothing else she’s wanted in her short life.
Charismatic and unconventional, Solomon easily wins the hearts and minds of his third form English class. He notices the attention of one girl, his new neighbour, who has taken to watching him from her upstairs window. He assumes it a harmless teenage crush, until the erotic love notes begin to arrive.
Solomon knows he must resist, but her sensual words stir him. He has longings of his own, although they have nothing to do with love, or so he believes. One afternoon, as he stands reading her latest offering in his driveway, she turns up unannounced. And what happens next will torment them forever – in ways neither can imagine.