Book review: A Pleasure and a Calling by Phil Hogan
Sunday 02 March 2014
Do you remember the name of the estate agent who showed you around the house or apartment you’re living in? Do you remember their face, how old they might have been, even their gender? Would you recognise them if they passed by you in the street?
It’s that anonymity which is relied upon by William Heming, the protagonist of journalist Phil Hogan’s latest novel, to continue his other trade... that of spying on all the people in all the houses that he’s ever let or sold.
Heming – on the surface an affable fixture of his small-town landscape –is creepy, invasive, and sinister and we should not like him at all. But in Hogan’s skilful hands he becomes not only a sympathetic character with whom we can empathise, but also a figure we end up rooting for even as we’re appalled by what he’s doing.
Heming has copied keys for all the houses he’s sold and at appropriate moments lets himself back into the homes of the people whose lives he has brushed, drinking in the minutiae of their day-to-day existences, rifling through their belongings and papers. Making himself at home in houses that are not his. We find ourselves with our hearts in our mouths as Heming is almost caught red-handed, willing him to make his escape even as we realise we should be hoping he’s caught and found out.
William Heming is cut from the same cloth as Barbara Covett in Zoë Heller’s Notes On A Scandal, another unreliable narrator with whom we really should not be siding, but who proves so engaging that we can’t help but go along for the ride.
Perhaps Heming speaks to the hidden voyeur in all of us, the one that keeps high in the ratings the TV shows that allow us into the lives of home-hunters or grand-design amateur developers, the one that has us poring over the through-the-keyhole property features in the Sunday supplements.
As Hogan deftly drops hints about an upbringing studded with truly horrific moments that has informed and guided William Heming’s journey to the peeping tom he has become, we’re also given pause for thought on matters of privacy. We sometimes seem to value it above all else, yet we are often free and easy with what we share online with complete strangers.
As unique and well-drawn as William Heming seems in this gripping, thrilling novel, perhaps he is simply a product of modern life that is more common than we’d like to think. If we carelessly leave our lives unlocked, maybe we shouldn’t be surprised when the Mr Hemings of this world push open our doors to take a closer look.
Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air
Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression
Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awardsTheatre
Grace DentChannel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Alan Rickman admits editing 'terrible' script with friends in Pizza Hut behind backs of writers on Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves
- 2 Rarest Beanie Baby of them all could be sold for £62,500 on eBay
- 3 Professional big game hunter Ian Gibson crushed to death by elephant during hunt
- 4 Farmer told to tear down mock-Tudor castle after hiding construction behind hay bales
- 5 Rebecca Francis accuses Ricky Gervais of using 'influence' to target female hunters after receiving barrage of death threats
Better Call Saul creator Peter Gould on the creative concerns of a prequel, season 2 and the mind-numbing realities of the small courts
Britain's Got Talent 2015: RSPCA investigating Marc Metral's miming dog after cruelty complaints
Doctor Who film will definitely happen, leaked Sony emails reveal
Fifty Shades of Grey movie shows first sex scene 'after 40 minutes'
The Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice trailer has leaked – watch
If I’m being racially abused I don’t need a stranger with a saviour complex to rescue me
The only black face in the Ukip manifesto is on the page about overseas aid
Ukip is the only main political party to not address LGBT rights in its manifesto
Food banks: One million Britons will soon be using them, according to Trussell Trust
Religion isn't growing, it is becoming vigorous in its demise, says philosopher AC Grayling
BBC election debate: The one photo that summed up the whole 90-minute leaders debate