The Engagement is a good title for Chloe Hooper's new book: an engagement requires two parties to commit to some kind of interaction whether it be marriage, violence, a tryst, bloodshed, a transaction or a book club. Although I'm sure book clubs can be thrilling it was not this kind of engagement that kept me reading Hooper's novel until the final page, around two thirty this morning.
Chloe Hooper makes fine use of the gothic tropes played out via novels for centuries. She's transposed them beautifully into the Australian landscape: the lonely, emotionally bereft farmer, the collusive priest, the crumbling, imposing manor, the used wedding dress with tatty plastic buttons, the mad woman in the attic, and a young woman come from overseas to stay with a distant uncle; a woman made suddenly vulnerable by a transaction that she thought she was in charge of. Think Jamaica Inn, Jane Eyre and its most beautiful backchat, A Wide Sargasso Sea.
This in itself is the makings of a ripping yarn but what kept me up all night was the realisation that The Engagement could be read as a perfect recipe for How To Do a Woman In.
Find a woman who carries tiny vestiges of shame, hurt and a disconnect from true love jingling about her body like a charm bracelet. Seduce her - but let her think it was her idea to unbutton her blouse. Let her know how much you care for her, how much she needs you. Spend lavishly. Encourage her to tell racy tales because you both like that kind of sex talk. Bank these tales for later.
Chloe Hooper strikes me as an extraordinarily supple writer. Her nonfiction treatment of the death-in-custody of Palm Island man Cameron Doomadgee is forensic, personal and compassionate. The Tall Man was first published as an essay in The Monthly (You can read it here) and became a book that has been compared to Truman Capote's In Cold Blood. Her first novel A Child's Book of True Crime is definitely not for children - a nasty, sexy tale of a school teacher having an affair with the father of her most gifted student. There's murder, obsession and not a few scorned men and women, all set in an idyllic Tasmanian village.
Compromise her financially somehow. Then, much later in the course of post coital gentle talk, say to her, "I've never visited a prostitute before."
Prostitution themes emerge early in The Engagement. Liese and Alexander begin their strange and charged relationship with illicit meetings in vendors' beautifully appointed inner city apartments. (What a beautiful premise! Makes me almost want to work in real estate. Almost.) Alexander is the potential buyer. Liese is the realtor. Her very name suggests a capacity for rental. Chloe Hooper has some fun with her slutty vision of Australian real estate here. It's quite delicious.
"As my uncle put it, the locals just pumped minerals over to China then stacked higher and higher 1BR or 2BR boxes for spivs making a killing in resource stocks who needed to diversify their portfolios." She describes Leise's change of costume as she enters the real estate sphere. "... and so I began dressing in a close-fitting grey suit and fawn heels, the plastic nametag Liese Campbell pinned to the breast of my white shirt."
Wave away her protests of innocence. Offer her a way out, an exit from the awfulness of debt and being alone/predated upon. Tell her you trust her, that you are falling in love with her, that you don't mind all the other men.
The Engagement is told over two days, with a back story. Over these two days, Hooper ramps up the tension.When Liese arrives at the country manor alone with a man she didn't really know and is ushered into a child's pink bedroom where she was to pack her dirty weekend lingerie into undersized white drawers, she begins to freak out, and fair enough. Her mobile proves out of range. There doesn't seem to be a land line. He proposes to her.
Once you have her in the house, show her the information you've gathered. Withdraw those racy details from your bank and collate them into a new narrative. Photoshopped images are good. She will wonder whether an ex lover had betrayed her. Her hurt and confusion about past lovers will help dismantle her reality and distract her from your own. Mention a home video that you have seen on XTube and that you've been receiving letters from people who have been 'intimate' with her, who worry that as a land holder perhaps you are being rorted. Let her know that she is being undermined but that you will protect her from them.
Whenever she pecks you on the cheek or heads for the fly of your pants or unbuttons her clothing, going for the safety and purity of sex, hold her firmly by her shoulders and say "I love you. I want to spend the rest of my life with you. We shall have lots and lots of babies. You don't need to do this ... you've done it with so many others. We are different."
Question the origins of her rampant sexuality.
Suggest that you may not be able to take her out in public. Ever. You've seen the sideways looks in the street. But console her that only your closest friends are aware of her past. They understand and they will be the only people she has contact with.
Lock the doors. Remove the phone.
Jesus, I thought, bleary eyed at one in the morning. I know that man. Actually, I know three of them ranging in varying degrees of dangerous. One was a farmer whose expertise at artificial insemination and breeding programs informed his love life - fortunately he was harmless and about as clever as a hatful of hammers. Another was dumb/dangerous; a drunken Romanian who trapped me in his Subaru for several hundred kilometres once he'd decided that I was to be his next wife. The third man came really close to doing me in and it is his recipe that I can see laid out in this book; knives, condiments, carcasses and all.
Chloe Hooper is quite surgical in this dissection of a man bringing a woman undone and consequently unravelling himself. Nobody wins by the way. But oh my, what a yarn.
Chloe Hooper, The Engagement, Hamish Hamilton/Penguin, Australia, 2012.