Tom Adair says that a subzero chic chills the heart of this Australian two-hander
The Engagement by Chloe Hooper
Jonathan Cape, 247pp, £16.99
In Melbourne there is an Ice Bar, a place to which tourists repair to sip cocktails. Looking cool is not a problem. Perhaps Chloe Hooper wrote the first draft of The Engagement there, with an icicle.
Her prose is subzero-chic. A thick pane of glass isolates the buyer (ie the reader) from the seller – namely, Liese Campbell, the 35-year-old narrator. You want to press hard against that glass. There’s more going on than meets the eye: “It started with a letter he wrote, sent that April care of my uncle’s estate agency … There was always something too formal about his advances, as though this man’s intentions were disguised even from himself.” You get the picture. To call this story, as the blurb does: “A tense, erotic novel of sex, money, desire and power” is to imply a lot more emotion than Hooper delivers. Instead she’s very good at spells.
Liese’s voice is simultaneously hypnotic and self-absorbed; her story is written fastidiously, for effect. And of course, she lies. It didn’t start with a letter at all, but months before that, when, having come to Melbourne from London, in debt and downcast, she is engaged by her uncle’s firm to show prospective, wealthy renters around desirable city apartments. The excitement of being alone with promising strangers in empty premises proves too much. Alexander Colquhoun, a bachelor farmer from upstate Victoria, is the temptation she can’t resist.
At the end of a day of fruitless viewings, Liese undresses. It’s no-one’s fault. It was the room that provoked her, nothing at all to do with desire: she tells us she simply wanted to tarnish it. “The fittings were new and smooth and begging to be soiled… (so)… I led sober Mr Colquhoun to the double bed and began unzipping…”
When, afterwards, he offers to pay for the cleaning, she asks for extra, and says: “‘It’s half price because I like you.” Strangely, he takes her to be a prostitute. “There was only one thing I felt bad about,” she tells us, deadpan, confessional – “the little heart pillow now had a mark on it. “ This may be irony, or accident. Their transaction, shorn of feelings, has had a heart bypass. For Liese.
The heart that is dented is Colquhoun’s. When Liese lies to him about sessions in empty rooms with other clients, he doesn’t spot this is a fantasy, her frolic. She, likewise, doesn’t see his naivety. You’d think the whole thing farcical, were it not for Liese’s announcement that she is heading back to London, and his reply (in the letter mentioned), requesting she visit him in the bush for one last weekend. Of course, he dangles a cash inducement.
With both of them uncomfortably alone for 200 pages, Hooper must innovate. To the characters’ spoken voices she adds the voices inside Liese’s head: of fear, confusion, hope and repose. These voices tangle and tumble hopelessly (a premeditated hopelessness) onto the page.
It begins with the drive across Victoria, into emptiness and mountains, a drive through atmosphere, intensified by the isolated mansion, which, when they reach it, is full of deathly quiet rooms, locked doors, the menace of growling hounds. Alexander is terse, he cooks her offal, (“the meat was firm and dense and pissy”).
Daphne du Maurier, Charlotte Brontë, Alfred Hitchcock, you hear them approving, a cackling cacophony to counterpoint Liese’s voices, so beautifully spun by Chloe Hooper it all sounds seamless. Polished gothic.
But fear not, reader. This is no morsel of mere entertainment. Two things happen. First, Alexander discloses a sheaf of anonymous letters, ostensibly sent by Liese’s (supposedly fantasy?) clients, full of sordid revelations. The other twist is Alexander’s proposal of marriage, despite the dirt now attached to his putative bride to be – for yes, she accepts.
But beneath her bodice her heart pounds fiercely. What will become of her? What is marriage if not a form of invisibility? “All these years I’d believed that marriage extinguished identity,” she cries inwardly.
But who is she? Who is Colquhoun? Hooper makes stark the great leap of ignorance – of others, of self, of the future – that marriage seems. Then, four other people arrive, a mercy, a diversion, perhaps bringing rescue? What happens next, like the dent in the pillow, is anti-climactic. By the end it felt like an exercise, brilliantly transacted, in technique. The Engagement engages, stares without blinking. Alas, I wasn’t moved.