Book review: A Pleasure and a Calling by Phil Hogan

 

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.

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