Book Review: Panenka


“His throat became swollen hearing her take his side. No one had ever done that. Not even he had done that.”

Panenka is Rónán Hession’s second published novel. His first, Leonard and Hungry Paul, has acquired legions of fans eager to press it into the palms of every reader. Hession, a recognised musician before he took to writing, tweeted yesterday, on publication day, ‘Always a bit of Second Album Syndrome at the back of the mind, so it’s nice when people accept the book as it is.’ Let us consider then his latest book as the stand alone work it is.

Before the story begins we are provided with a definition of the title.

Panenka: In football, a penalty technique in which the taker chips the ball artfully into the centre of the goal, counting on the likelihood that the goalkeeper will have dived to either side.”

The protagonist of the tale, Joseph, is burdened with this word as his nickname. It is even how his daughter, Marie-Thérèse, refers to him in the town where they have always lived. As we discover, there is a deep and abiding sadness to how it was acquired.

Now middle-aged, Joseph suffers debilitating, nightly pain that he refers to as his iron mask. When the medical profession investigate, the diagnosis makes Joseph reassess the bargains he has made with himself over how he lives his life. He does not share his worries with Marie-Thérèse, who moved in with him along with her seven year old son, Arthur, when she left her husband. Joseph believes she shoulders more than enough concerns already and wishes to spare her. This shutting himself away emotionally from those who care for him is an ingrained habit, one that cost him his marriage.

Joseph was a professional footballer, playing for his local team. Football fans may find this backstory of interest. What it offered this reader was a glimpse into a world where winning a game becomes everything. When any aspect of life takes on such all encompassing importance it can be hard to recognise the value of what is pushed to the margins.

Marie-Thérèse’s husband, Vincent, runs a café/bar at which Joseph is a regular. Conversations here amongst his fellow drinkers provide a picture of life in the town where they all reside. The ordinary lives depicted are shadowed by individual, small tragedies. It is a reminder that we can rarely fully know even those we interact with frequently.

This knowing a person is explored with the author’s trademark insight and wit when Joseph, requiring a haircut, is forced to try a new establishment as his usual barber is unavailable.

“Donnie had learned to cut hair in the army and viewed barbering as something akin to getting your toenails cut or brushing your teeth. It was a maintenance job, and not something to develop ideas about.”

The new barbershop Joseph chooses is run by Esther, a women he is drawn to, perhaps by the aura of sadness she too carries. Esther turns out to be wise in ways few master. Having been let down badly by someone she believed she knew well, she is circumspect when it comes to accepting what others share of themselves.

“I could have asked for the full tour – you could have shown me around all your own facts and circumstances, given me the tourist board version of yourself. A whole story that I would later have to revise or unlearn based on who you turned out to be.”

Joseph has an endearing relationship with young Arthur, a contrast to that which he offered Marie-Thérèse when she was a child. Whatever sadness it brings Esther, she is gentle with his eagerness to tell her of the boy.

“‘That’s old – one of his baby pictures’, he said.
‘Ah yes, he was still landscape then,’ she said. ‘He’s probably portrait now.'”

When guilt is hollowing a person, gnawing away from the inside, what do they hear or remember other than the blame that affirms worst fears? Joseph believes he has let everyone who ever cared for him down. He struggles to accept when love is offered, caught up as he is in trying to process the pain of perceived failure. That he has been given another chance with his grown daughter, grandson and then Esther makes him anxious not to repeat the mistakes of his past. Changing habits is never easy.

The shadows cast over the characters by loss – historic and impending – could have made this a dark read but the author is adept at evoking the resilience and hope that even the simplest acts of kindness bring. This is a story of people and relationships, of finding sincere words that the damaged can hear. A poignant and thoughtful tale that lingers beyond the final page.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Bluemoose.


Book Review: Leonard and Hungry Paul

“We are never entirely outside of life’s choices; everything leads somewhere.”

Leonard and Hungry Paul, by Rónán Hession, is a novel of wry intelligence wrapped around the quiet rhythms of ordinary lives as they are being lived. The apparent simplicity of the narrative carries the reader through moments of insight as characters speak from their hearts on everyday dilemmas. The rarity of such truthfulness in conversation and the skill with which thoughts and feelings are conveyed make this a singular read.

The eponymous protagonists are men in their early thirties still living in their childhood homes. Leonard’s mother has recently died leaving him alone in trying to work out how to cope with his quiet grief. His work – writing text for boilerplate encyclopedias marketed for children, which will be published under a better known author’s name – fills his day but offers limited satisfaction. He recognises his social awkwardness, especially when he becomes attracted to the office fire marshal, Shelley. He has little idea how he is expected to interact in potentially romantic situations.

Hungry Paul lives with his recently retired parents. His busy and successful sister, Grace, is planning her wedding and urges her parents to make the most of their upcoming freedom while they still have their health. Grace would like to see Hungry Paul take more personal responsibility. His occasional work as a postman leaves him financially dependent and his acceptance of this frustrates Grace. Their mother is more phlegmatic but also wonders how her unadventurous son would cope if left to look after himself.

“The kids lives are their own. From day one you are handing it back to them bit by bit, until they move on”

Leonard and Hungry Paul are best friends. They get together on regular evenings during the week to play board games and discuss topics of mutual interest. They share the minutiae of their lives in the knowledge that the other will accept whatever has happened and move forward without assigning blame. They observe the world around them and ponder how best to integrate when this is necessary.

Other people’s crises provide moments of clarity. Leonard’s burgeoning relationship with Shelley plays out with unusual honesty. He voices the risks and fears encountered when two strangers tentatively open up to each other – their expectations and the likelihood of misinterpretations. Grace’s wish for her brother to be more independent provides a gently poignant yet masterfully rendered understanding of family dynamics. The asides on marriage cut to the heart of why the institution can sometimes succeed.

This is a gentle yet penetrating tale of the many guises of love and friendship that pierces the too often impenetrable veneer most will apply to protect themselves from others perceived judgement. Leonard and Hungry Paul may appear socially awkward but they offer a deeper understanding of relationships than many who remain unaware that their confidence in a crowd is shallow and blinkered.

A sterling read, a rare achievement, recommended without reservation.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Bluemoose.