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Thrilling, disturbing ride through the imagination

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The Engagement

By Chloe Hooper

Simon & Schuster, 208 pages, $29

"Every real prostitute must know that the dullest clients have the deepest fantasies; the most wholesome are also the most dangerous."

So writes the talented Australian novelist and Columbia University Fulbright Scholar Chloe Hooper in her slender second novel, a tightly plotted, suspenseful and sexually charged exploration of the malleability of identity and the subjective nature of reality.

Mirage becomes actuality as two characters push the limits of masquerade. Hooper's first endeavour was shortlisted for the Orange Prize; this second one should be a winner.

Featuring the disenchanted, indebted English architect Liese Campbell in flight from a career designing boring apartment suites, The Engagement delves deeply into the human psyche.

Liese, in effect, redesigns her own identity, as she lands in Melbourne and begins to work for her uncle in his estate agency, showing prospective clients through the same type of dreary, humdrum highrise suites as the ones she had depicted in England.

It is while showing a client around that Liese realizes the extent to which she can bend her personality: through bedding potential renters. This is where the trouble and suspense begin. Livening up the rental properties' depressing décor with local farmer Alexander Colquhoun, the inventive and indebted Liese reshapes herself into a prostitute of sorts, attracted to the money, as wealthy Alex assumes payment is required for living out his fantasies time and again.

Gradually, Alex becomes more and more possessive and controlling -- or does he? Herein lies the key feature of Campbell's story: whose version of reality is authentic?

Liese begins to believe that "all the soothing stories of girlhood" had sprung up "like so many seeds waiting for a fire to germinate them." Graphic, bawdy, coarse anonymous letters begin to arrive, detailing Liese's supposed sexual escapades, beginning in adolescence, in England.

Accurate in their description of her family home and its surroundings, the letters may or may not be telling a truth of which Liese has no memory.

Alex and Liese satisfy parts of one another in more than the physical sense, as their mutual fantasies intersect, blend and contrive an alternate reality in which he can "own" her, she can become someone else and the outside world can disappear. Liese begins living with Alex in his once-grand rural home and the two become even deeper entrenched in their erotic chimera.

Hooper is skilled at depicting imagination's range and power. One never knows if Liese's frightening version of events is objectively true, or if Alex is simply a man with grip on reality wanting a live-in prostitute with whom to pursue his sexual proclivities.

Alex, however, also seems to want a companion, cooking Liese dinners, albeit unappetizing ones of animal livers and other entrails, and taking her on walks around his, now dilapidated, family estate.

Australia's landscape is a backdrop to the affair, as Hooper depicts both the grandeur and the desolation inherent in the land. Areas in which "[a] giant bulldozer or lava flow could have passed through once" alternate with "deep purple" grassland, mountains and remnants of a countryside that 300 million years ago was inland sea. Hooper takes us through lush, almost tropical, locales and parched, abandoned inhospitable ones, as Alex takes Liese on a tour of his homeland.

By turns thrilling and disturbing, The Engagement is a wild ride through the imagination and its power to craft a kaleidoscope of alternate realities.

Elizabeth Hopkins is a Winnipeg writer.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 23, 2013 J9

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