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by Phil Hogan
Picador, January 2015
268 pages
ISBN: 125006063x

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

It's a curious fact that, while most of the major population centres of North America and Europe have been property-obsessed for years, the one figure central to real estate transactions, the agent, has largely been ignored. But if enough people read Phil Hogan's new novel, this obscurity will vanish, for once having made the acquaintance of the narrator of A PLEASURE AND A CALLING, the reader is unlikely to see the estate agent in quite the same light ever again.

Mr Heming is a very successful property agent in a prosperous English village - small, quiet, decorous, though with a dusting of social problems on the perimeter. Mr Heming left school under a somewhat obscure cloud and got a job as a trainee in a local real estate office. He rapidly (and perhaps feloniously) rose to the top and in time took over the business. All the while, he retained duplicate keys of the houses he brokered and took great pleasure in slipping into them when the owners were away, rifling through their belongings, reading their mail, and shuffling though their bureau drawers. No, he is not the sort of man who has a pathetic fixation on women's underwear. He insists that his sexual appetites do not run to the exotic. He is far creepier than that - he has a fixation on other people's lives, largely because he appears not to have one of his own. He hardly has so much as a home of his own, renting a furnished flat under another name. But then, he has no need of one as his greatest pleasure is to occupy other people's houses when they are away. He prides himself on being able to pack everything he owns into two suitcases and then disappear without a trace. The question, of course, is - will he have to?

Mr Heming presents himself as a benign figure; yes, he may take the odd token from the houses he visits, but he never contemplates any major law-breaking - no blackmail, no serious theft, nothing of the sort. On the contrary, as he tells us, he takes the occasional opportunity to redress minor wrong-doing. A dog-owner who leaves his dog's mess behind on the pavement might find it returned on his living room carpet, for example. It is only when he falls obsessively in love with one of his "subjects" that his interventions take a sinister turn.

But what keeps our attention rivetted on this narrative is less what Mr Heming does than what he is. His is a delusion of extraordinary scope. Though a confessed atheist, he takes pleasure in believing that his interference in the lives of others is wholly benign, almost holy in nature. The calling of the title is a sort of religious vocation. Like God, (or Santa?) he knows who you are, he knows what you've done, and he has the means to punish if he chooses to. An oddity about this book is that the village itself could be anywhere. We are told that it is somewhere in Norfolk, but it could equally be a suburb in Connecticut or Ontario. And that, I suspect, is partly what accounts for the spell it casts. At a time when personal privacy has become a quaintly old-fashioned notion, when CCTV cameras overlook almost every public activity, when hit television is created by recording the private embarrassments of willing participants in reality shows, a single and single-minded Mr Heming can present himself as a kind of modern equivalent of the Roman household god, the Lar. In his farewell to the reader, Heming makes his best case:

"I have no plans of my own, of course. I am happy on the fringes, listening and watching, excitedly awaiting your next move. I dissolve into the surroundings and breathe your air. I come in peace. I bring my love."

You might really want to consider getting a new lock on your door.

Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal.

Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, January 2015

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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