The Engagement, by Chloe Hooper, Jonathan Cape, RRP£16.99, 256 pages
I haven’t read more than a few troubling lines of Fifty Shades of Grey but, even so, I thought of that book as soon as I started reading Chloe Hooper’s The Engagement. A woman receives an invitation to spend a weekend on a country estate. It comes from a very formal, very wealthy man who is offering to pay her “a ridiculous amount” for her time. She agrees, and he hands over the envelope of cash. A sinister (or sexy?) uncertainty hangs over their silent drive through the remote countryside. “The three hours in the car would be the most we’d ever spent together, and neither of us was used to talking,” Hooper writes. “Long sessions with just a request, or – if he was in another kind of mood – a command.”
As it turns out, Hooper is well aware that The Engagement, her second novel, risked this comparison. In an interview last year for The Age in her native Australia, she said: “I had a dark night of the soul after this book went to the printer ... I thought, ‘Don’t tell me I’ve just done a literary Fifty Shades of Grey’.’’
She hasn’t, and in any case, it would be cruel to compare the two books. Hooper is a careful, clean and literary writer: her debut, A Child’s Book of True Crime (2002), was shortlisted for the Orange Prize and The Tall Man (2009), her non-fiction account of the case of an Aboriginal man who died in police custody, won seven major awards in Australia and made Hooper’s name internationally.
The Engagement is fluid and readable; I drank the story down in a day. The problem was I wasn’t always sure of what that story was meant to be.
Liese Campbell, an architect, flees London for Melbourne after being fired during the financial crisis, and finds work as an estate agent at her uncle’s firm. One of her clients, the extravagantly named Alexander Culquhoun, lives on a cattle ranch in the Australian bush and claims he’s looking for a pied-à-terre in the city.
Somewhere along the way, they begin an affair; Hooper is deliberately vague about how it starts, or who initiated it, or how it came to involve money. But soon enough Liese and Alexander have a deal: they meet at empty homes and have sex and Liese gets paid. Four months after first meeting him, Liese is being driven to his estate.
At first we assume she is doing this to pay back her debts, as she claims, but Hooper’s sometimes infuriating vagueness – and the possibility that Liese is an unreliable narrator – encourage us to believe there may be other reasons. Culquhoun’s motives, besides the obvious, are even fuzzier.
This is Hooper’s point: she is exploring desire and fantasy, what women really want, the relationship between sex and money, and whether we are ever honest with ourselves about love. The book is also a thriller, so she leaves important details out until the heart-thumping finale. But psychological thrillers require a tricky balance. Hooper doesn’t want to tell us everything about Liese and Alexander in case we guess where the story is going. If the characters’ psychological profiles remain too thin, however, it makes it difficult to care about them.
This problem is particularly apparent in the case of Liese. Hooper offers no portraits of her friends or family and we get little sense of what her life was like in London. Her briefly intriguing concerns about marriage and her own loveableness – “Could I stay with anyone for longer than it took to conceive? Would anyone stay with me?” – just hang there, questions attached to no one in particular, as if Hooper forgot to give us the necessary background for them. “I was whoever he found me to be; certainly I’d given up on finding myself,” says Liese.
But why? Even if the author meant Liese to be a stand-in for any woman who ever wanted to channel the “prostitute within”, the reader still needs a sense of what life experience has left her so hollow. Or what attracted her to Alexander. His world is so dull I couldn’t grasp what the mysterious Liese, or any woman, could possibly find enticing about it. I can’t be so cynical as to think it was just the money.
As a thriller, however, the novel succeeds; it’s a Gothic tale, filled with brilliantly creepy details. On the couple’s first evening at the decaying, cavernous mansion, Alexander cooks kidneys: “The meat was soft and firm and dense and pissy,” Hooper writes. Alexander then launches into a bizarre soliloquy on his theory of not using herbs and spices to distract from the naturally putrid smell of certain animal organs. “Usually we eat the outer flesh,” he says, “But this is the inside of the animal and it smells like the inside of the animal. The kidneys don’t get any light, any air; they don’t get any exercise.”
Hooper describes the moderately attractive Alexander in increasingly repulsive terms. His house becomes dirtier, more rotten, more haunted. And his behaviour becomes weirder – in the angry way, not the kinky way – as the tension mounts.
What pain, what confusion could have led Liese down this dark and desultory path? I just wish Hooper had given us more substantial hints.