The Engagement (2012, published in the UK 2013) by Chloe Hooper
I swallowed The Engagement whole, in one gulp: altogether it can't have taken me more than two hours to read this book. Although I probably over-use the word 'compelling', it's been quite a while since I've read something I felt I absolutely could not put down until I found out what would happen in the end, even if that meant not sleeping.
Liese is an English girl in Australia, working for her uncle's estate agency. Here she meets Alexander, a wealthy, if somewhat weatherbeaten and often quite awkward, farmer with whom she begins a strange sexual entanglement. Their affair involves Alexander paying her for sex - something Liese sees as part of a fantasy they are both enjoying acting out, but also a means of escape for her, since she is in serious debt and wants to return home. Shortly before she is due to leave, Alexander makes her an offer she can't refuse: she is to spend a weekend with him at his grand home, Warrowill - a run-down mansion surrounded by a vast area of wild bushland - in exchange for a 'ridiculous' amount of money. Liese thinks she can't lose, seeing this as an opportunity for a dirty weekend with a man she finds attractive which will also happen to pay for her plane ticket several times over. It's only when she realises exactly how isolated Warrowill is, and how different Alexander seems from the man she thought she knew, that Liese realises she is involved in a very dangerous game.
I do not say this lightly: this is one of the most terrifying books I have ever read. It is not scary in an obvious way - there is no violence, no blood or gore, no ghosts or anything supernatural. It is simply so incredibly tense that at times I could barely breathe, and I really mean that in the physical sense. Hooper pushes the suspense to levels I wouldn't have thought possible using words alone, and constantly plays with the reader's perceptions by having Liese (who narrates the story) question herself and change her mind throughout. Is she Alexander's prisoner, or has she unwillingly entrapped him, sexually and/or romantically? One minute she senses menace in his demeanour, the next she is convinced he is harmless, a lonely man desperate for company - but there is always a sense of dread hanging over them. There were several scenes that drove me so wild with frustration I wanted to scream, I wanted to grab Liese and pull her out of the book.
You'll be unsurprised to learn that Liese is an unreliable narrator. (Sometimes I wish someone would collect all the books in the world written from the viewpoint of unreliable female narrators with questionable morals and send a crate of them to me. I'd be kept happy for a very long time.) Key to the plot is her inability to differentiate between the truth and the made-up history she has created to satisfy Alexander's fantasies. This is magnified by her reaction to a strange discovery she makes at the house: at first so certain of her own theory, Liese's beliefs begin to crumble under the weight of Alexander's questioning. Hooper has nailed all of this absolutely perfectly: the insidiousness of lies, how they can twist your real memories; the madness brought on by another person's madness, how accusations can worm their way into your head and create self-doubt; the vicious circle of it all. I found it fascinating to put myself in Liese's shoes and it was all too easy to imagine exactly how she could be driven to the edge of insanity, particularly in this desolate place. While I was always firmly on Liese's 'side', there are hints of inconsistency in what she believes about her past and how the arrangement originally came about, and suggestions that some of her fears are paranoid imaginings. Even the ending is ambiguous. I was left wondering exactly what had happened before Liese came to Warrowill and whether Alexander was mad or just incredibly manipulative.
This is yet another book I loved which seems to have had lukewarm-to-negative responses from a lot of other readers. Why?
Because it has been (inexplicably, in my opinion) compared to Fifty Shades of Grey and people have read it expecting something similar to that, or because of the usual bias against books about women who behave in corrupt and unscrupulous ways? To be clear, I have absolutely no idea why there would be any comparison between this and Fifty Shades. (Note: upon doing some further research after writing this review, it seems Hooper made a throwaway reference to it in an interview which has been picked up on in many reviews and articles about her book.) Although there are sex scenes, they are not supposed to be in any way erotic - quite the opposite, in fact - and there is absolutely definitely no romance here. In any case, I would hazard a guess that if you like one of the two books then you are definitely not going to like the other. The closest reference point for me, personally, would be the similarly brilliant Lamb by Bonnie Nadzam - it has the two protagonists stranded in the remote, barren countryside, the delusional and persuasive captor who seems to believe he is acting in his victim's best interests, the kidnapping that's not a kidnapping. Of course, the comparatively different ages of the characters in The Engagement make it a very different story, but I would say there is a very similar feel to the books, that cloying sense of claustrophobia and entrapment that both managed to evoke so well.
This is a gothic novel and a psychological suspense thriller. If you are looking for a romance, you should stay well away from it: the idea of this being categorised as romance makes me want to burst out laughing. It is queasy, haunting, disturbing. Gorgeously written, with the kind of observational detail that makes a story seem real, and wonderful descriptive touches: 'between the trees were moonlit patches like chances' (there are many more examples, but I was reading too feverishly to take notes). Despite the fact that it is short, as evidenced by how quickly I consumed it, I feel like I could write pages and pages dissecting everything that happens. Every single scene is a perfectly constructed little thing. Stunning.
Rating: 10/10 | My full review on Goodreads (with spoilers!) | Buy on Amazon: Kindle & Hardback