It’s apt to finish up my reviewing for the Australian Women Writers Challenge for the year (aside from one more, which will appear in my round-up of diversity issues in a week or so) with one of my favourite authors, Chloe Hooper.
I read Hooper’s The Child’s Book of True Crime many years ago, and returned to it over Christmas because I realised it had similarities with her third book, The Engagement and I wanted to look at these. The first novel is set over the course of a week and follows a young schoolteacher, Kate Byrne, who has been having an affair with Thomas Marne, the father of one of her students. Running parallel with this is the story written by Thomas’ wife, Veronica, about a murder that occurred in the town a generation before. As events unfold, Kate is threatened by anonymous phone calls and believes someone has tampered with her car. Interspersed with the heightening tension is the story of cast of Australian animals, such as a koala, Tasmanian tiger and kookaburra, which have investigated the previous murder of Ellie Siddell, and comments on Kate’s embroilment. The reader is led to suppose that there’s a parallel between the Ellie’s predicament, and Kate’s own, and that she will be killed.
It was because of this cast of animals, and the lushness and rhythm of the writing, that I loved this novel. It was an inventive, clever and brilliant debut, but I remembered that it had confused me, and that the ending was murky. On re-reading it, I realised this was because it was narrated in first person by a young woman whose imagination runs riot, rendering her unreliable. The closing pages are described when she’s intoxicated and, by the final pages, in a state of hysteria, so it’s hard to work out what is going on. Ultimately I think the book was too brief to hold together the competing strands, a sense that was compounded by the fact that there was no firm explanation of Ellie Siddell’s murder. While this irresolution might speak to a sense of how the past can never be contained, for me it was just far too chaotic to be successful.
Having said this, it’s easy to see that Hooper already has a command of her craft in her first novel. Woven through the narrative are the observations of her fourth grade students on morality, which contrast with Kate’s apathy on her actions. Through a similar form of mirroring, the theme of murder is also reflected in the destruction and disease of the native animals commenting on Ellie and Kate. Hooper also creates a sense of the Gothic not just through the frequent contemplation of Ellie’s murder, but also through a school excursion to Port Arthur and a scene where her car breaks down, forcing her to walk along an empty road for help, which she finds in a man who shoots native animals for money. It’s here, in a description of the man’s shed, that Hooper articulates (brilliantly, I thought) the incomprehensibility of men:
This space: it smelled of man. It smelled of men when they were alone. I wished suddenly that my father, or my grandfather, had better prepared me for how foreign men were. I wondered what they even thought, with those blank faces. It was like gauging the sea. In high school we sat in sex education and blew up condoms, sending them flying across the room, but no one mentioned that when men made polite conversation it would always seem like an interaction that had been dubbed (113).
The opacity of the shooter, and the threatening tone of the section which comes after this, where he helps Kate with her car, is replicated in The Engagement. This novel is also written in first person, with an unreliable narrator who has found herself out of depth, financially and then emotionally, and who is also somewhat gauche about her sexuality. Having run out of money in England, and pursued by debts that she can’t pay in the wake of the financial crisis, architect Liese Campbell begins work for her uncle in Australia as a real-estate agent. There she meets Alexander Colquhoun and begins a sexual liaison with him, for which she is paid, beginning in the apartments which she shows him in Melbourne, and culminating in an invitation to spend a weekend at Alexander’s house in the country for a sum that will release Liese from her financial woes. There ensues a psychological drama in which Liese, and therefore the reader, tries to work out what Alexander’s intentions are.
After the magic of The Child’s Book, and the potency of The Tall Man, Hooper’s non-fiction account of the death of Cameron Doomadgee on Palm Island, I confess to feeling a little deflated by this work. The writing was more controlled, but had lost some of the sensuality of the first work, which led to a sense of dislocation. Liese comments that ‘My own desire could make me feel obscene. It could make me feel sluttish and out of control … the money seemed a way to manage this. It gave my vast and clumsy longing a neater shape, a strategic purpose’ (281). Yet, throughout the narrative, there isn’t really a sense that Liese enjoys her transactions. It was also unfortunate that this novel was released during the brouhaha over Fifty Shades of Grey, as Hooper herself asked at a Brisbane Writers Festival event, ‘Have I written a literary Fifty Shades of Grey?’ For me, it held nothing of the erotic, nor was it really meant to, for at its heart it is a psychological drama that uses sex to explore power relations between men and women. This is summed up in a the hesitation of a bondage scene between Alexander and Liese:
As he bent over me – leaning as he might over a sheep that needed tethering – I supposed we were both thinking how bad the other was at this game. I was admonishing myself for not quite taking control, or not taking control in quite the right way. It was supposed to be the person paying whose hands were tied, wasn’t it? (48).
Here, the domestic image of the sheep and its tethering is all that’s needed to deflate any suggestion of arousal (for that, turn to the opening of Krissy Kneen’s Affection). In addition, the difficulty of knowing who, exactly, is in control, and whether Liese is really trapped or if it’s her imagination, is what propels the narrative. By the end of the novel, Liese is questioning herself, and so is the reader, to the point where it’s hard to tell what is reality and what is fiction.
In both novels, the question of sexuality and power is paramount. The female characters believe that sexuality is a path to influence, but with this comes the usual fatuous typecasting by the male characters that, if a woman likes sex, she’s bound to be a whore. Thus Kate discovers that her number is written in the men’s toilets at the pub, and Liese is cast into the role of prostitute by Alexander. Yet neither women seem to be wholly in control of their sexuality which, cleverly, completely destabilises the Madonna/whore dichotomy with which we are plagued. Sexuality for both men and women is never clear-cut, and Hooper does a wonderful job of both illuminating and playing with this. I can’t wait to see what she does next.