Review | Tuesday 07 August 2012
To follow up an acclaimed debut must be one of literature’s fraughtest feats. When a proof copy of The Engagement landed on my desk, my first response was simply joy – for it’s a good 10 years now since the international success of A Child’s Book of True Crime turned Chloe Hooper into one of Oz-lit’s hottest properties. 2008’s impassioned The Tall Man was of course an extraordinary achievement in the interim – but the long-rumoured ‘Western District novel’ is what fans like me have been waiting patiently for all this time.
And what a boldly told, intriguing tale it is. Hooper attempts nothing less than an investigation of the possibility of personal transformation against the backdrop of sterile modern society.
Liesel Campbell is a young Englishwoman who designs featureless apartments for a living in London. But as the GFC bites and her debts mount, she’s up for a change, so she takes a job in the (still booming) real estate scene in Melbourne. With one client in particular, however, Alexander Colquhoun – a landowner from the Grampians district – a certain frisson develops, and private viewings instead become the site of intimate (paid) rendezvous. When Liesel flags her impending departure to the UK, the infatuated Alexander invites her to stay the weekend on his estate – but the final ‘dirty weekend’ instead becomes something much more sinister (or so it appears).
The Engagement thus becomes a psychodrama: what starts as a seeming erotic game becomes a struggle to hold on to one’s identity as each player seeks to overlay their version of reality on the other. Indeed, is marriage for instance the institution whereby you truly come to know your partner and yourself, or is it a mutual self-annulment that must be escaped at all costs? Where are we more trapped: inside or outside relationships?
From a wobbly beginning (I suspect Liesel’s Lustprinzip will be a challenge for many readers to accept), I found that the novel became increasingly convincing as it played off this dialectic between a yearning for the truth about oneself and personal self-deception or erasure. Like the jagged Grampian peaks that are its backdrop, The Engagement is at once an alluring and forbidding novel, unremitting in tone but strangely compelling, and a fascinating addition to Hooper’s steadily growing oeuvre.
Martin Shaw is Readings’ Books Division Manager.