Dispossession and control are central to Chloe Hooper’s third book.THE ENGAGEMENTBy Chloe HooperHamish Hamilton, $29.99
ON THE John Canty-designed cover of Chloe Hooper’s novel The Engagement, a woman turns her naked back to us. The image is enigmatic. So, it will turn out, is the book’s title.
Hooper’s career began with the publication of the novel A Child’s Book of True Crime (2002), just before she turned 30. Set around Port Arthur, it surfed the wave of new fiction about Tasmania. Most of those books interested themselves in things supposed to be long lost – Aborigines, convicts, the thylacine. Hooper’s was decidedly of the present: a complicated tale of adultery, menace and violence, narrated by unstable and overwrought primary-school teacher Kate Byrne.
Hooper’s second book, The Tall Man: Death and Life on Palm Island (2008), was non-fiction. Its title character was Queensland police officer Christopher Hurley, in whose custody an Aboriginal man, Cameron Doomadgee, died. Four years later, and just before she turns 40, Hooper’s third book, marking a return to fiction, has appeared.
It is narrated in the first person, not altogether reliably, by Liese Campbell, by profession an ”interior architect”, who has fled London and her debts when retrenched because of the global financial crisis. She has found work, and refuge, in her uncle’s real estate business in Melbourne. Her task is to show potential renters expensive inner-city properties.
Impulsively (that is, in much the same manner as she spends), Liese has sex with one of them – Alexander Colquhoun, a 45-year-old squatter from Victoria’s Western District. She leads him to think, and perhaps he believes, that sex in temporarily empty apartments is the trademark act of a professional prostitute.
The novel begins after these encounters have proceeded, not without risk of discovery, for a while. Alexander has named a large sum to entice Liese to spend three nights at his country property, Warrowill, via Marshdale. He will inveigle her into a story more complex and threatening than any she has invented.
Premonitions and memories – folkloric and literary – flood through the reader as Alexander’s old Merc traverses the world’s third-largest volcanic plain. We might think of Bluebeard in his castle, the decaying mansions in Jane Eyre and Great Expectations, or the interior architecture of gothic horror tales (rather than the minimalist apartments Liese has designed).
The journey to Warrowill is disorienting: ”sheep cling to slanted grass (like everything was unstable and tilting)”; ”I caught a glimpse of a wavering weatherboard cottage moments from falling down”. The arrival is more predictable. The house was long ago ”erected in homage to the Old Country, to replicate a stately home”. Now it is full of empty rooms, the smell of must, locked doors, an overgrown, once grand garden. Liese reflects that ”no one knows where I am”. But Alexander does, announcing in a tone at once calm and crazy, while he proposes marriage, that ”now you are mine”.
Hooper cleverly plays with the conventions of melodrama, whose chief business is dispossession, whether of reputation, chastity, liberty, life or any combination of the above.
Villainy preys on innocent virtue, but rescue in the nick of time is part of the standard plot. Not here. Alexander is not given to horrid, gloating laughter, but to planning the family that will make sure Liese never leaves the house. In turn, she has been complicit in her own entrapment.
Nonetheless, there is a steady build-up of threat. Liese notices how ”all the knives in the kitchen seem too close to him”; she realises that of the mysterious, anonymous letters allegedly sent to Alexander in which her sexual past is impeached, ”he believed every mad word of his story”. As a result, ”I knew that I must not be let out”.
There is much to admire in The Engagement: the sharpness of its images – ”I stared in at the room, all lit up with money and perversion”; ”the tap continued its dull thud: to die, die, die”; the bold staging of a rescue that might have been: Alexander tells Liese that ”I’ve invited a few friends to dinner”. Some of them come: Alexander’s sister, Annabel, who discloses the secret about their mother, the Reverend Wendy Smythe, with ”the Big Twenty-Five Marital Counselling Questions”.
This is a festive but disquieting episode in a novel that is artfully and coldly controlled, one that is also disturbingly anti-erotic. Yet, notable as Hooper’s narrative gifts are, some readers might decide that the novel’s central, ambiguous game was not altogether worthy of them.
■Peter Pierce is editor of The Cambridge History of Australian Literature.
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