Rónán Hession. Leonard and Hungry Paul (Bluemoose Books, 2019).
Rónán Hession. Panenka (Bluemoose Books, 2021).
Hession’s work is dawning like a slow revelation.
Published by Bluemoose Books (one of the MRB’s favourite small presses, based out in Hebden Bridge), it’s taken a while for word to catch on. But catch it did, and the author is fast approaching cult status.
His debut, Leonard and Hungry Paul, was a finalist for the British Book Awards Debut Book of the Year prize and the Irish Book Awards Newcomer of the Year prize.
Panenka sold out its first run solely on pre-orders. A second edition was scheduled before it had even gone to print.
So what is so special about Hession’s work? It is well-written, yes, and heartwarming… and full of sympathetic characters, but what is its unique appeal?
The answer, I believe, lies in quietness.
Hession’s writing has a particular tonal quality, self-effacing and casual, that is difficult to pin down (an unsympathetic reader might consider it quite pedestrian) but has the capacity to still the reader’s expectations. He slows you down. You enjoy what’s there, without expectation.
A quiet magic.
It makes for a calming and gently self-affirming reading experience. One that’s so enjoyable, like a cup of hot chocolate is enjoyable, that once can’t wait for the next book, for a chance to return to Hession-land.
But don’t be mistaken. Leonard and Hungry Paul is quite a different book to Panenka. They tread similar ground, but the second is perhaps the shadow-sibling of the first.
Where Leonard and Hungry Paul is about quiet contentment, Panenka is about quiet despair.
The first tells the tale of a young man, Leonard, whose unremarkable life of office work, dinner with parents and board games with his friend Hungry Paul is pleasantly interrupted by the appearance of Shelley.
Shelley is a single mum who laughs at Leonard’s jokes and Leonard, out of character, manages to ask her out on a date.
Hungry Paul, meanwhile, whose name is never explained, wanders pleasantly through life, filling in as postman whenever the full-timers are off sick, board gaming with Leonard, and generally doing very little other than quietly enjoying himself.
Things happen to Hungry Paul, but they don’t affect him. His responsible sister badgers him to get a job, which he won’t. He submits entries to local council competitions, and is adopted as a national mascot for mimes; nothing changes him.
Towards the end of the story, Hungry Paul starts a “Saturday Night Quiet Club” where attendees can come and sit quietly, perhaps reading a book or just enjoying the peace.
If Leonard and Hungry Paul has a message, it is one of quiet contentment; the kind summarised by this club.
I admit, as a person who feels guilty whenever they’re not working, that my initial response to this message was a sense of dread. Existential horror. A glimpse into the terrible void of unfilled, unstructured time.
But herein lies the quiet radicalism of Hession’s universe. It comes from a place of genuine humility.
He’s not St Francis, parading around in a hessian sack, making a spectacle of his poverty. He doesn’t glorify the sweat of the workers, or reveal hidden mysteries lurking behind the mundane.
These are just everyday people, living everyday lives. And that’s fine.
Panenka is the same, albeit with a heightened sense of drama.
Our protagonist, the eponymous “Panenka”, as he’s known, is a former footballer; a hero-turned-villain who played for the local club. He has brain cancer, and he’s going to die.
His life is at once more notable and more desolate than that of Hungry Paul’s in the previous book, and yet, as the narrative progresses, we can’t help but suspect that it is hope for a Hungry Pauline peace-in-the-world that is Panenka’s final wish.
He has a daughter to think of, and a grandson. He has acquaintances, new and old, including a cheery cast of pub-dwellers who I particularly liked. Love, as always, might bloom.
But Panenka is haunted by his past. Football fans might guess the revelation long before it comes. I finished the book on the day that England squibbed the Euro 2021 final; which made the story eerily relevant.
Even among the drama, Panenka is resigned to his fate. He is acted on more than acting. He suffers quietly, bearing the burden so as not to upset others.
Both books offer lessons in living. Even if, like me, you are constitutionally incapable of learning such lessons, Hession’s clear-eyed vision of everyday life and everyday living, modest and self-effacing, is unique in its very unassumingness.
In an era of urgency, Rónán Hession is an oasis of calm.
– Joe Darlington