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Chloe Hooper: The Engagement (Jonathan Cape)

In her first novel, A Children's Book Of True Crime, Chloe Hooper probed modern sexual mores with a very sardonic eye, pitting the roles of wife and mistress against each other and illuminating some of the darker corners of our sexual psychology.

Roleplay and sexual games become manipulated by the characters to give expression to their more disturbing inner vulnerabilities and failings. In The Engagement, this exploration is extended and developed.

Liese Campbell, an "interior architect" from Norwich who has been made redundant, has found work as an estate agent in Melbourne, Australia, where she meets Alexander Colquhoun, a handsome, wealthy farmer searching for a bolthole in the city.

During the viewing of several properties they become familiar, and Liese begins to feel a frisson of something in the air when they view the bedrooms, then one day they hop into bed together.

Afterwards he pulls out a roll of cash and pays her to "help get the quilt cleaned". "Only a hundred?" Liese quips, before peeling off another couple of notes and joking that it's half-price because she likes him. From then on, every time Alexander comes to town, they meet for sex in the properties she is selling, and he pays her handsomely.

Lisa rationalises taking the money with the belief that they are playing an elaborate sexual game.

She also desperately needs the money to pay off heavy debts she has accrued: "every morning I woke with this figure imprinted on my eyelids. Debt's gnawing was like a small insect burrowing deeper and deeper towards my brain. Cash was the only analgesic."

The sex begins to take on a distinctly kinky flavour, and Alexander is especially keen to hear what her other customers make her do. She obliges, concocting with some relish outlandish deviant scenarios to feed his imagination.

When Liese has accumulated enough money, she decides to return to Britain to start sorting her life out, but before she goes Alexander invites her to spend the weekend at his farmstead.

When they get there, it quickly becomes clear to Liese that the "game" has gone too far: she is miles from anywhere and no-one knows she is there.

Alexander might be mad or even psychotic, and she has put herself in the position of the prostitute with no panic button. In due course, Alexander declares his love and proposes marriage, seeming to believe that he is rescuing her from a life of depravity– and he won't take no for an answer.

The narrative that unfolds from this point on is certainly compelling, and although Hooper works her way through some real clichés of the Gothic thriller, she subverts them into a probing analysis of the psychology of sex, but also of conventional marriage: "Presumably Alexander wanted to purify his desire, not eradicate it. But the whole point of marriage was to cancel out the erotic. It was essentially a contract between two people so as not to have to sleep together."

Hooper is also skilled in keeping the ambiguity of the situation alive, and the possibility that Alexander's proposal of marriage may be their "game" simply entering a new phase verging on a folie à deux is sustained for as long as possible.

As in her first novel, the narrator is a young woman who knows and has come to accept her own weaknesses and failings, and the resulting wry, self-deprecating narrative tone is engaging and at times very funny.

It also makes for a robust vein of satire when considering such things as romantic love, the institution of marriage, parenthood and social status.

Hooper has constructed a modern fairy tale of a kind, complete with Bluebeard and his castle, and using some of the fictional paraphernalia of Gothic horror and melodrama she delivers a compelling, at times disturbing, but always humorous and readable cautionary tale.

The Engagement

Chloe Hooper

Jonathan Cape, £16.99

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