Liese Campbell is on a working holiday in Australia at her uncle’s real estate firm: she shows clients around fancy apartments to rent. One day in a crazy-brave spur of the moment decision she seduces a client, wealthy farmer Alexander Colquhoun, in one of the empty apartments. Maybe because he acts surprised at this, but is also willing, after the act she asks him to pay.
This is the premise The Engagement is based on. If you’re prepared to go with it, as I was, then you’re in for a tense, psychological thriller. The novel is basically a two hander – between Liese and Alexander – as the power in the relationship shifts from one to the other and back again.
The reader is given the backstory of how the two met and Liese’s background in England, but the novel starts with Alexander driving Liese from the station to his remote property for their first weekend away together. Liese has misgivings from the beginning about moving their relationship out of the artificial fantasy of meeting in other people’s apartments, but she’s about to leave Australia and the money Alexander is paying her for the weekend is more than welcome.
But as the car moves through the landscape and finally pulls up in front of the crumbling pile that is Alexander’s inheritance things take a more and more gothic hue. The weekend becomes a psychological cat and mouse game between the two protagonists. The reader sees things through Liese’s focalisation so we are initially sympathetic to her, but things are not that simple. Is Alexander just lonely, mistaking sex for love? Is Liese emotionally damaged in some way, seeing threats where none exist?
As I read this novel I kept thinking of Daphne Du Maurier thrillers like Rebecca or Don’t Look Now where the reader is never sure who to believe, although I found Hooper’s work darker and more claustrophobic.
I loved the nuance of this book and the twists and turns; it’s the hallmark of an accomplished writer that she can convince the reader to believe one thing and then a few pages later almost its opposite. Couple this with some very effective writing and you have a potent thriller that builds to an almost hysteric, deeply disturbing conclusion.
Out the truck windows there was chaos on either side, the vegetation dense and scrappy. We rushed past bursts of brilliant yellow wattle, bushes with bristling pod-like extrusions, the bulbous pigmy trees erupting in countless long green spikes – plants all designed in a radical workshop. Nowhere in England would you move so fast from pastoral land into vast, wild disorder.