Chloe Hooper’s first novel, The Child’s Book of True Crime, was shortlisted for the Orange Prize but it was her non-fiction book The Tall Man, about the death of Cameron Doomadgee whilst in police custody on Palm Island, which really established her as an author.
It was a masterful work about a difficult and sensitive subject but she deftly wove together data with narrative and carefully retraced events to build an intricate picture of what, from any viewpoint, was a dark period for the indigenous community. Later The Tall Man was turned into a successful movie that continued to keep what many see as unresolved issues of the tragedy in the public eye.
Hooper’s latest book, The Engagement, is about Liese, a young woman whose extravagant lifestyle leaves her heavily in debt. She goes to work as a real estate agent in Melbourne with the sole aim of gathering enough money to pay off her debts and return to home to England.
One day she is showing would-be investor, the diffident Alexander Colquhoun through a property when, on the spur of the moment, she initiates quick, unexpected sex for which he pays her.
Was it momentary passion misinterpreted by the seemingly unworldly man as the actions of a prostitute? Liese is the narrator and we only have her view of events. Either way, she makes a conscious decision to maintain that relationship and seems unperturbed as the meetings continue, and her debts decline.
Eventually she agrees to go away with Alexander for the weekend for which she is being handsomely financially recompensed. There seems little ambiguity about what is expected from her but, in her mind. This is going to be the end of the arrangement.
She intends it to be their last meeting before she finally returns to her family in England and is resigned to fulfilling her side of their bargain. But she underestimates the enigmatic grazier. On his home turf he is a far more confident and assured. Quickly she realises that his intention is not a weekend of sex but a lifetime of marriage. The power balance has moved and she is no longer in control of the situation, if indeed she ever really was.
Hooper does creepy well. The spacious property is more mausoleum than mansion, the rooms seemingly unchanged for decades, one full of an unknown woman’s clothes. A meeting with Miss Faversham would not have seemed out of place. And there are some vivid moments of impending doom.
But overall, I found the symbolism rather leaden: The ever-present guns, the isolation, the cowed dogs fearful of their master, the macabre menus for dinner; the cow’s bloody struggle giving birth.
Hooper raises some interesting talking points: The subtle power shifts in relationships; the enigma of the Madonna-whore; the ambiguities of society’s rules around the contractual nature of sex and of man as the “rescuer” of woman.
However, The Engagement was for me ultimately disappointing. Long before the end I had given up caring what was going to happen to either central character. And I was left with the overwhelming feeling that the book was not written solely for the reader but with an eye to the moviegoer.
The Engagement is published by Hamish Hamilton.