Monday, February 25, 2013

The Engagement by Chloe Hooper

Despite all the resources at the hands of the modern novelist, certainly types of stories have become more complex to tell. In Chloe Hooper's "The Engagement" we have a contemporaneous sexual thriller, where our narrator, Liese, is lured into the countryside for a weekend with the man she has been having (paid) illicit sex with. This dark tale is very much in the territory of Daphne du Maurier or particularly Patricia Highsmith; yet its contemporary setting could cause all sorts of problems - one mobile phone call; one internet search and the the story is over. Yet, Hooper cleverly gives us a set up which deftly sidesteps these difficulties and delivers what in some ways is an old fashioned psychological thriller, albeit tinged with erotic power plays that seem very born out of a world of "swingers clubs" and "fuck buddies." Liese is English, whilst Alexander, ten years older than her, in his mid forties, is Australian; she is basically an urbanite, he is a country landowner. Coming up to the city (Melbourne) to search for apartments there is an immediate attraction between the woman showing him round, Liese, and him, and they begin to use the apartment "showings" as stage sets for their "affair" - complicated by the fact that after that first time he pays her, and, though she has not done this before, she accepts. The somewhat prissy title might have been better called "The Transaction" for it implies something more genteel (as does the cover) - a kind of dark Jane Austen anti-romance; when in fact the story is as suspenseful and unnerving as psychological powerplays such as "The Collector."

By agreeing to go away for a weekend with Alexander, at a time when she is due to leave Australia anyway, she is suddenly in a situation of intense excitement but also intense jeopardy. The money is the key to her staying but like that hoary 90s movie "Indecent Proposal", just because you accept money doesn't mean that you are the bad person in this transaction. For their relationship is a strange one of role playing and misunderstandings, and, told through Liese's eyes, we are never entirely sure at the full truth - though she is a compelling witness, the stories that excite Alexander about her "fallen" past are ones that she has admitted to fabricate. As the fabrications become more complex, we have to rely ever more on Liese's testimony, yet see that though Alexander is apparently keeping her trapped against her will, she is not making any great attempts at escape.

What Hooper does well is create a very believable modern scenario that offers up some tantalising questions about the "roles" that people create for themselves and each other - from "whore" to "bride" they are all fantasies. Alexander has his own dark past we find. He is a broken individual who is perfect for these fantasies - but his own cruelty is emotional as much as physical. He is like the religious playboy who has a past of sexual promiscuity but imagines a chase marriage to an imagined "wife." By setting it at the end of her stay in Australia (before she returns to an uncertain recession in Norwich of all places) and in a remote outpost that is also a sprawling 19th century ranch full of old furniture and old ghosts, she has given us a plausible retelling of old stories of lust and possession. Its a relatively short book, but though I think you could read it in one go, it took me a while, as  Hooper's writing has a forensic intensity which needs savouring. There's always the sense of something delayed - something suspended - whether its a sexual fulfilment or calamity, which makes it a very sexy book even though the descriptions of Liese and Alexandar together are told plainly, as if a script for a porn movie. For the sexiness in the book is in the regard that Liese - an architect by trade - has for "things." Hooper's writing has a real clarity about it, particularly when its describing things, and so though the book is all through Liese's eyes, those eyes are keen on showing the static detail of both Alexander's old house, and the dreadfully sterile apartments where there affair begins. Equally at home writing about a cow having a breach birth as interior decor, the descriptiveness is always used to power the narrative. If the trip into the country seems allegorical it also feels like a trip into the heart of darkness, and there's something of Conrad's twisting of the knife, in the slow unreeling of her story.

Its impossible to say much more without bringing in spoilers, except to say that in many ways Hooper prepares you only for the upsetting of your expectations. The book is at its weakest when it becomes too much like a nineteenth century tryst, and the tone of the dialogue never qutie convinces. Alexander speaks like an old English squire rather than the backwoods scion that he is, and Liese is occasionally coquettish and crude, but mostly her dialogue comes across as a little bland, especially compared with the knowing intelligence of the narration. Though "The Engagement" is the much darker book, I'm reminded a little of Rachel Cusk's city-girl-goes-country "The Country Life" where the change of scenario, coupled with an unreliable narrator creates the sense of dislocation.

Overall, its a fine, intense novel that successfully marries a powerfully seductive template common to much older fictions with a very modern sensibility.

1 comment:

chillcat said...

Thanks for bringing my attention to this book. I'd intended to read Hooper previous book 'Tall Boy' and now will add this to my list. Best, cat