Guest Post by Rebecca Howden
From the opening scenes of The Engagement, there’s an atmosphere that drenches the pages with a subtle, simmering sense of dread. Filling her mis-en-scene with gothic tropes that recall the gloomy romance of classics like Rebecca and Jane Eyre, acclaimed Australian writer Chloe Hooper draws us into a tense, brilliantly crafted story that grapples with the tangled threads of power and desire.
The novel takes place over a single weekend, which Liese Campbell, an English interior architect, is spending with Alexander Colquhuon at his crumbling bluestone mansion, set on a sprawling estate of overgrown gardens and windswept paddocks on the plains beneath the Victorian Grampians. In exchange for her company, he is paying her a large sum of money. She assumes he knows this is just a game, that he is the only “client” she has ever had, but she’s already backed herself into a complex set of rules, playing the part of a prostitute playing the part of a girlfriend. She arrives at the house with a suitcase full of expensive lingerie – the appropriate costumes for an erotic weekend away – but she is acutely aware that she’s not quite mastering the role. Catching a glimpse of her pale face and messy hair in the mirror, she notes, “I did not look quite right. I did not look worth the money.”
Liese quickly starts to feel uneasy with the whole prospect of a weekend alone with this man, whom she realises she knows nothing about. “Around me was every clue to who Alexander Colquhuon was,” she notes, “and yet I felt my picture of him disassembling.” Most unsettling, she reflects, was that “No one knows where I am.”
Everything in the landscape feels drained of colour, stripped back to pale, earthy tones. Everything starts to feel menacing. There are locked doors, musty rooms filled with perfume bottles and hairbrushes left behind by other women, grotesque meals made from the innards of animals Alexander has killed himself. Anonymous letters start to arrive, filled with brutal, graphic – and imaginary – details of Liese’s sexual past. When Alexander proposes marriage and announces, “Now you are mine,” the reality of her entrapment starts to descend upon her.
Something about the erotic premise of the novel has invited comparisons to Fifty Shades of Grey, but Hooper – best known for her widely acclaimed 2008 non-fiction book The Tall Man, an account of the death in custody of Cameron Doomadgee from Palm Island – treats the erotic with a rawness and subtly that has little resemblance to the popular bodice-ripping tales du jour. Sex is approached obliquely, with descriptions of the act itself largely avoided. The sex scenes we do witness are awkward and fumbling, notably unsexy in their realness. Even when Liese gets Alexander to tie her wrists to a chair, we are made acutely aware that they are both acting out a scene, grasping at pornographic tropes and performing them clumsily. “As he bent over me – leaning as he might over a sheep that needed tethering – I supposed we were both thinking how bad the other was at this game,” Liese recalls.
I was admonishing myself for not quite taking control, or not taking control in quite the right way. It was suppose to be the person paying whose hands were tied, wasn’t it? And obviously it would have been better to undress before being disabled. Very politely Alexander went about removing which of my clothes he could, carefully folding them so they wouldn’t crease, and then he did the same with his own (and socks were never sexy things.)
This sense of acting out real life is at the core of the novel. Liese is trying on two roles offered to her by Alexander – whore or bride – to see how they might fit. Both are classic fantasies – playing with the relationship between power and desire, each signifying escape but also entrapment – and Hooper plays with this complex anxiety that surrounds female sexuality. “If I gave myself up to this man he could make me whomever he wanted me to be – including no one,” Liese realises. “As his wife I’d never be allowed to unmake myself as a whore.”
Her sense of identity becomes even more fractured as she begins to question her own perception of reality. Is this Alexander’s fantasy, or Liese’s? Scanning through the awful letters that keep arriving, calling her a whore, a nymphomaniac, a slut, she recognises “all the murky, half-hidden parts – the feeling of being indecently different, and the old yearning to be someone else.” They are filled with lies about her past that somehow uncover a sort of truth. “Even their lies seemed to show me for who I really was. Did getting close to another always mean discovering you were a fraud?”
This book is chilling, with psychological layers that keep peeling away. Towards the end it becomes almost impossible to know whose truth we can trust, and it leaves you with a feeling of uneasiness as potent as when you first began reading.
— Chloe Hooper’s The Engagement is available now through Penguin. RRP 29.99
— Rebecca Howden is assistant editor of Monument magazine. Her fiction and essays have appeared in publications including Kill Your Darlings, Voiceworks and Page Seventeen, and she blogs about books, fashion and gender at rebeccahowden.com.au.