Chloe Hooper | "Nowadays it’s hard to find a house to be trapped in where you couldn’t just open the window and wave down a taxi"

Chloe Hooper’s The Engagement (Jonathan Cape, January) is a gothic tale about a forced betrothal set in the modern-day Australian Outback.

Liese Campbell has an arrangement for the weekend: to stay with rich farming heir Alexander Colquhoun at his country pile in western Victoria. Liese, an English architect, works at her uncle’s real-estate business in Melbourne. Alexander is a client interested in property—and in Liese. The luxury apartments she shows him are the foundation for a relationship that satisfies both their desires and Liese’s financial problems, as Alexander pays for her time. Both players understand the rules of the game—or so they think.

When Liese decides to leave Australia, Alexander invites her to his ancestral home for the weekend. Built on acres of farmland and hours from civilisation, it’s clear that Alexander sits on a fortune—and Liese will be generously rewarded for her company. But with no phone reception and nobody aware of her whereabouts, Liese soon realises that a new game has begun.

Speaking from her home in Melbourne, Hooper says The Engagement is “a psychological thriller about sex and money. In a way I see it as a telling of the perennial gothic storyline, which is that of a forced engagement. I love books like Rebecca and Jane Eyre, where there’s a woman navigating the mysteries of a house and, in a way, herself.”

The Engagement is Hooper’s third novel—her first novel, A Child’s Book of True Crime (Vintage) was shortlisted for the Orange Prize in 2002 and her second novel, The Tall Man: Death and Life on Palm Island (Jonathan Cape, 2009), was based on Hooper’s investigation for the Observer about the Aboriginal Doomadgee case (she is also a freelance reporter). The Tall Man won seven literary awards in Australia, but The Engagement is Hooper’s first foray into the literary thriller market in the UK.

A gothic engagement

The desolate landscape that makes Liese so powerless in The Engagement is an important part of the novel, and Hooper stayed in some of the private houses in Western Victoria, where the novel is based. “There are these pretty amazing mansions which are in very isolated spots. [They] were built to replicate the stately homes of England, and often the descendants of the wool kings who built the properties still live there today, so it’s quite a gothic spot,” she says.

“Nowadays it’s hard to find a house to be trapped in where you couldn’t just open the window and wave down a taxi, somewhere isolated where Liese’s mobile phone wouldn’t be working.”

Hooper says the Victorian gothic novel was a big influence when writing The Engagement: “In a way I was trying to recast a gothic novel in modern times. [Liese] has been living the modern life and she finds herself in debt. What is debt but a pretend life? It’s like: ‘I have all these things that I can’t afford; this is who I am, or should be.’ I think that in her attempts to commercialise herself she finds herself in this Jane Eyre fantasy that she can’t get out of. I guess that the house signifies domesticity, and in a way I think this is a book about a woman who is very ambivalent about relationships.

“I think that the story of a forced betrothal is often about ambivalence. Marriage, or nowadays domestic partnership, is on some level a way that women have been able to live out their desire for this ritual and also their fear of it. I can relate to that ambivalence and fear of walking down the aisle, so it became a thriller based around that. There are good reasons for men and women to have the hairs on the back of their neck stand up—a third of marriages end up in divorce.”

Mirror image

Hooper, who has an MFA in creative writing from Columbia University, says that the most accurate description of The Engagement was when somebody said it “reminded them of a psychological box of mirrors. You tilt it one way and this side’s the truth, and you tilt it the other way and you can read things a different way. The protagonists are playing a game with each other, and I think the book plays a game with the reader as well.”

She has no firm plans to come to the UK in January for publication—she has just had a baby. “I’d love to,” she says, “I’d just have to brave the 24-hour flight with a toddler.” The reception of The Engagement in Australia (it came out in early September) “has been pretty good so far”. Dan Franklin, Hooper’s editor at Jonathan Cape, published Hooper’s previous two novels, and she says she was “really delighted that he wanted to publish this one—and that he’s excited about it.”

book data

Publication 24/01/13
Formats £16.99 hb/    e-book £17.72
ISBN 9780224096348 / 9781446484692
Rights sold four territories to date including the US (Scribner)
Editor Dan Franklin, Jonathan Cape
Agent Tracy Bohan, The Wylie Agency

personal file
1973 born in Melbourne, Australia
1991-1995 Fine Arts and English degree, Melbourne University
1997-2000 MFA Creative Writing, Columbia University
2000-present freelance journalist