288pp, hardback, £14.99
Reviewed by Zoë Fairbairns
I think people who review books without first reading them from cover to cover are cheating, but with A Pleasure and a Calling I was tempted. I enjoyed the first chapter so much that I feared that anything that followed must be an anticlimax.
And I was right: the first chapter is as good as it gets. Which is very good indeed. It’s an almost-perfectly formed short story, that chapter, a stand-alone tour de force in which a concerned citizen takes exquisite revenge against a dog owner who allows the animal to crap on the pavement. The chapter is both complete in itself and suggestive of other stories in the future and the past.
And that’s what you get if you read on (which I did): the life and background of the concerned citizen, William Heming, who, as it turns out, is a category of human being almost as widely-disliked as pavement-fouling dogs and their owners. He is an estate agent.
Given the unpopularity of the profession, it seems remarkable that estate agents so often find themselves entrusted with the keys of their clients’ homes. Don’t the clients realize how easily the agents could, if they are the unmitigated bad guys of popular prejudice, make copies of the keys and keep them indefinitely, using them for any number of eccentric, erotic, perverse, acquisitive or even homicidal purposes?
The last book I reviewed for bookoxygen, The Night Guest by Fiona McFarlane, featured a toxic home-help called Frida. William Heming could be Frida’s spiritual brother. Both are trusted to come and go freely to and from the homes of strangers. Both abuse that trust in ways that can chill the blood of the reader who recognizes how easily such things could happen. (Did you change the locks when you moved into your current home? Neither did I.)
Unlike Frida, who is seen only from the outside – her inner motivations can be guessed at but never known for sure – Heming gets to tell his own story in the first person. A troubled childhood led him towards an obsession with violating other people’s privacy, and a profession which allows him to do it. Entering a house without the consent of its owner, who has just left for work, he holds ‘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.’
There’s a thriller narrative strand in A Pleasure and a Calling but it’s not nearly as thrilling or creepy as watching William Heming and imagining how he might watch us. So go on, get those locks changed. I’m sure you can find a locksmith. One you can trust.