A Pleasure and a CallingA Pleasure and a Calling by Phil Hogan
My rating: 4/5 cats
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Here I am an invisible boy.

this is a hell of a creepy premise, and a great addition to the tradition of psychological suspense with unreliable narrators. william heming is a character you will remember precisely because he has tailored himself to be as unmemorable as possible – all the better to observe you with, my dear…

heming has always been a bit of a voyeur, which is my attempt at british understatement. as a young boy, he would hide behind chairs and under beds and sofas, spying on his family and witnessing their private moments without always having the context or perspective to interpret them correctly,

but he’s not the only one who misunderstands the things he sees. or so he would have us believe. although he assures us, the reader, that there was no sexual motivation when he is caught in his older cousin isobel’s wardrobe, some of his play has a decidedly sexualized cast to it:

In my aunt’s barely used back room I made a den under the oak dining table, draped in the big Christmas tablecloth out of the drawer and heaped inside with cushions. It was here, in the green shade, that cousin Isobel once discovered me with the fashion dolls she no longer played with – Sindy, plus Sindy’s boyfriend Paul, plus two larger pink babies in nappies. I had swapped their clothes round so Paul was wearing Sindy’s short gingham nightie and carrying water skis, while Sindy wore Paul’s sheepskin coat, her white nurse’s mask and nothing else. Together they took care of the children, though of course really it was me who decided who was punished and who had jelly and ice-cream. It was a game I could have played all day, had Isobel not arrived, screaming and punching and bringing the adults running.

after a childhood filled with similarly troubling incidents that frightened his family, which will slowly be revealed throughout the narrative, he is sent away to school, where he discovers a larger pool of people upon whom to spy.

I shunned cliques, laughed when the others laughed, shrank from the scrutiny of masters. Neither in nor out, I cultivated a middling, willing sociability, waiting my turn, playing my part. But when, once or twice a term, I feigned mild illness or injury, it was not (as with the other boys) with a view to skipping afternoon games or PE, but to secure a half-hour of freedom in which to walk the creaky, waxed corridors of Winter House or Bentham or Wood, drawn by the odour of unattended, unlocked dorms – familiar as my own in basic decor, layout and dimensions but redolent with the aura of their legitimate, absent residents. Now that was what I called an opportunity.

while there, heming develops a fascination with an older boy named marrineau, and while he continues to acquire small souvenirs for his scrapbook from the rooms of other boys, he reserves a particularly keen interest in marrineau, eventually succeeding in penetrating his secrets and taking advantage of an unexpected opportunity which, when discovered, leads to a violent confrontation resulting in heming’s expulsion.

he is then sent away to a private college some distance away after being given a summer job with mower & mower, a firm of estate agents. he discovers that the role of an estate agent involves the unexpected perk of having keys to all the client’s homes, which is a mind-blowing opportunity for a budding voyeur, and the job becomes, for him, a pleasure and a calling.

I move like a window-shopper.

he remains in the firm’s employ – eventually taking over the running of it himself, cultivating an anonymous, forgettable personality in order to better facilitate his continued explorations into the lives of the homeowners when they are not at home; eating their food, rifling through their mail, learning everything about them. and over the years, he has amassed quite a collection of keys, all of them representing an entrée into the intricacies of other lives and other secrets, while his own life fits in a single suitcase.

I don’t have the conventional comforts – I rarely watch TV, for example, and own only the most basic furnishings. But this is the place I sleep, surrounded by my keys, of course – shimmering on every wall under the dimmed lights like gold and silver, each opening a lock in a portal to pleasure and adventure. I go to sleep counting sometimes. I have no idea how many hundreds or thousands there are – randomly scattered, you might think, some out on their own, others hanging in twos or threes on their little hooks – though together they are a collage of the town, every pendent shadow a house and a way of life.

there’s nothing overtly malicious in what he does – for the most part, it is simply feeding a curiosity: They are good people leading lives as interesting to me as to themselves. however, he does retain the same sort of relationship to his clients that was foreshadowed in his playing with his cousin’s dolls: he feels responsible for them, they are “his,” and while he mostly treats them like a jar of lightning bugs, solely for observation purposes, there are times when he feels it necessary to intervene – to play god and punish the guilty and reward the victims of situations he has witnessed. and sometimes people will die.

it is a fascinating character study, and i loved the ambiguity of some of the early childhood scenes, especially the one involving riley the cat. it’s a really masterful use of the unreliable narrator, and as his aunt cautions him that things aren’t always what they seem, this can also be applied to heming himself, in the way he interprets his own motivations and in what he chooses to omit. although he continues to claim there is no prurient angle to his sneaky home invasions, the act itself is definitely described in erotic terms:

I had no doubt that this time the key would fit, though I paused to enjoy a moment of calm before turning it. Then I closed the door behind me, shut my eyes and inhaled, holding that first taste in my nostrils. Of course, it’s nothing more than molecular. But also how magical, especially at that time of day, when the slow lingering charge of a person is still in the air. It goes beyond the steaming aromas of morning – the mingling of coffee and shampoo and croissants. Here was Abigail in essence, arising from the rustle of clothes against her skin, the warmth from her bed, her spearmint breath, the brisk eruption of human dust in the simple tightening of a shoelace. Thus do we leave the signs of ourselves. Its seduction is narcotic. The dreamiest high, the thrill of newness. A fresh drug to try.

and in this case, with abigail, heming gets much closer to her than is typical, his precious anonymity is compromised, and this is what sets off all of the novel’s events.

an unusual and memorable bit of psychological suspense with a character sure to evoke that wonderfully layered reaction equal parts condemnation and sympathy. tricky fun stuff here.

read my reviews on goodreads

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