Author: Chloe Hooper
Hamish Hamilton RRP $29.99
Review: Monique Mulligan
I wasn’t expecting to review this book. A good friend lent it to me the other day, and needing a break from a particularly gut-twisting book, I picked this one up. And couldn’t put it down. I finished it late at night with a head full of questions; a body that wanted to sleep thwarted by a mind that didn’t want to shut down. Reviewing it is a way to sort out my thoughts.
Liese Campbell has an engagement for the weekend: to stay with Alexander Colquhoun, the well-mannered heir of a pastoral dynasty, at his property in western Victoria. She’s about to leave Australia and Alexander wants to show her something more of the country before she goes. And he’s willing to pay good money for her company. Money that Liese, a former architect, can well use to pay off her debts.
Money has always been a factor in their relationship, if you can call it that. The two met when Liese, working for her uncle’s real estate business in Melbourne, started showing Alexander luxury apartments in the city. The apartments become the stage for acting out their erotic fantasies – Alexander pays Liese for sex in strangers’ apartments, a game which satisfies them both and helps pay Liese’s debts. Both understand the rules; both know it’s a game.
Out at the farm, in the decaying family home, Alexander is different. Liese can’t make out what it is he wants – and her usual tricks don’t seem to be working. Is Alexander just taking the game to another level? And if so, what are the rules? Every time Liese thinks she has the game – and Alexander – figured out, the game plan changes. Whatever this new game is, she doesn’t like it. And she wants out.
I love an engrossing, goose-bumpy psychological thriller and The Engagement is without a doubt an excellent example. As I read I became entangled in the characters’ games, not knowing myself who was playing who. Was it a game all along and was Liese just going with it? Was Alexander a sociopath? Was Liese losing her grip on reality? Was Alexander? The blurring of reality and fiction was faultless. The ending left me with just as many questions – I can see why book clubs love it because there’s so much to discuss. So many grey areas. Wait till you start pondering whether Liese is a true prostitute even though Alexander is the only man she’s taken money from. Or when you think about the kind of wife Alexander is after – a 1950s stay-at-home mother, home-maker and on-call mistress. Perhaps the mother he never had.
I found the word associations interesting. Game: Liese and Alexander indulge in mind games and sex games, while being “on the game” colloquially means working as a prostitute. Property: Liese is selling property, but she’s also selling herself; Alexander takes her to his property and also wants to make her his property. Engagement: can mean a commitment or a betrothal, but Alexander engaged a property consultant, he and Liese engaged in sex, they got engaged to be married. It’s mind-boggling stuff.
The book explores the seductive pull of money, sex and love – but it’s not erotica, nor can it be compared in any way to books like 50 Shades of Grey. Rather than in-your-face erotica, The Engagement is subtle, dark and disturbing. It’s not spicy in a romantic/erotic manner, but it has a definite bite: the storyline grabs you and holds you, even as you try to pull away, and only releases its hold in the final pages. Even then, the psychological imprint leaves you in the story’s grip long after the book is set aside. The book also delves into the female experience – what does it mean to be a female in Liese’s world? How does she empower herself? And what does it mean to be a female in Alexander? Why does he need to control her?
The Engagement is a brilliant novel that disturbed and enthralled simultaneously; everything, from the tension in the plot and between the characters, to the tension created in myself as the reader, was masterfully executed. It’s the first novel I’ve read by Chloe Hooper and I suspect it won’t be the last.
Available from good bookstores and Penguin Books Australia. This copy was a loan from a friend.
Bookish treat: Nibble corners of good quality dark chocolate to save your fingernails.