While I would never describe myself as a trendsetter, I am lucky enough to have access to a fair number of books before their release date, and people do occasionally buy books after reading my reviews (which sends a shiver of guilt and dread down my spine every time lest I be the cause of wasted money and a few disappointing hours of reading…). However, when it comes to books outside the sphere of translated literature, I’m very much behind the times, and I rarely pick anything up until well after everyone else. Today’s choice certainly fits that picture, with every man, woman, child and dog having tried it already, and I’m not sure I’ll be adding anything to the chorus of approval out there. Still, it can’t hurt to add another thumbs-up to the list, so I recently managed to persuade my local library to purchase the book – and if you somehow haven’t heard of it before, then I’ll consider my job done 🙂
Leonard and Hungry Paul is the debut novel by Irish writer Rónán Hession, whose second work, Panenka, has just been published by Bluemoose Books. It’s a cheerful, meandering affair in which the reader spends a few months in the lives of two friends, men in their thirties who are more than happy with a quiet life. More surprisingly, there’s no real pressure from either those around them, or even the writer, to pull their socks up and make something of themselves. This is a novel where people are allowed to be themselves without fear of being left behind, and it’s a refreshing change.
The story begins shortly after the death of Leonard’s mother, a sad, but not tragic event, where her heart had simply “run out of beats”. Left alone in the family home, he starts to slowly examine his life, and when he meets Shelley, a woman at work, it appears that he’s about to enter a new phase. However, unaccustomed as he is to seizing the day, he wonders how to act when faced with the opportunity, uncertain as to how quickly he should move.
Compared to his good friend Hungry Paul, though (no, the name’s not explained, just go with it), Leonard’s virtually a human dynamo. The second of the friends still lives at home with his parents, picking up shifts as a postman on a Monday morning when the regular workers are too hungover or lazy, and his life seems to be passing him by without asking more of him than the occasional walk and regular games nights with Leonard and his parents. His elder sister, Grace, a high-flier occupied with intercontinental phone meetings and preparations for her upcoming wedding, fears that he’s becoming a burden for the family, but as Leonard’s life starts to change, so too does Hungry Paul’s, in slightly unexpected ways.
If you take what I’ve described above at face value, you might be tempted to see our two protagonists as a little flat, pitiable even, yet the beauty of Leonard and Hungry Paul is that by the end of the book, you’ll be wondering why we all don’t live like them. Hession’s novel is an ode to the joys of a quiet life, and to the importance of prioritising the little things. The two friends are intrepid heroes of the mundane, a twenty-first century Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, albeit without the epic journeys and the touches of insanity.
From the start, it’s clear that the writer intends to slow the reader down. In terms of a plot, well, there’s Leonard and Shelley, of course, and the preparations for Grace’s wedding form a kind of backbone to the novel, but you’ll be disappointed if you’re looking for dramas, with not even a hint of a real disaster on the Dublin horizon. These are just ordinary people living normal lives, and at times it reads like an episode of Coronation Street that captures what goes on when the cameras aren’t there.
This is particularly true for Hungry Paul. We join him as he wakes up early, making cups of tea, waiting for a phone call, perhaps venturing out into the garden to refill the bird feeders. Other highlights include conversations over Scrabble or Yahtzee and volunteer visits to the local hospital, where he chats with long-term patients, or (preferring to hold his peace) simply holds their hands in a companiable silence.
Leonard’s days are slightly (but only slightly) busier, owing mainly to his work, writing the facts for children’s encyclopaedias. Hession manages to bring across Leonard’s fascination for everything, and how he longs to bring the world to life for his young readers:
His mind became effervescent with pictures and stories of overlooked people who had simply lived their lives as best they could during the Roman Empire. Ordinary, kind, gentle people whose stories he had only ever considered telling in a generic way.
p.60 (Bluemoose Books, 2019)
This is another sign of his slow transformation. Bored of churning out standard platitudes, he makes the decision to write a reference book about the Romans, throwing off the shackles of the texts he’s been ghostwriting to produce his own work, illustrations and all.
Initially, it all feels a little twee, but the reader is soon pulled (gently, of course) into the book’s orbit, and it’s not long before we’re just as concerned about Hungry Paul’s chances in an email sign-off writing contest as his parents are. It helps that Hession has created an appealing narrator, one who seems just as idiosyncratic as the two men he’s describing. There are numerous slight tangents and informative asides, along with a tendency for the narrative voice to muse on life’s mysteries.
Leonard and Hungry Paul isn’t perfect, and on a couple of occasions it did seem a little too slow. I felt that the introductory section on Grace and her wedding weighed the story down with a bout of info dumping, and if there was one aspect of the novel I didn’t quite buy, it was the relationship between Leonard and Shelley. It’s this strand that comes closest to nineties lad-lit (à la Nick Hornby or Mike Gayle), with the focus on Leonard and the woman who will change his life. At times, their happiness felt a little unearned, with Shelley slightly underdeveloped and Leonard too passive.
Hungry Paul, though, is a superb creation, a man who quite simply sees the world differently:
Downstairs, he took a moment to sit in stillness, listening to the silence and the gentle high frequency tingling in his ears that was barely audible except at quiet times like this. It was unclear whether this was a mild form of tinnitus from years of listening to headphones in his room or whether it was just the sound of nothing happening. The ambient music of air itself. He supposed that the world was full of people who have never heard that sound. People with busy lives and even busier minds. (pp.50/1)
His sister’s despair over his lack of ambition is justified in a way as he doesn’t really want to get ahead – he just wants to help. His post office work is undertaken purely to make sure the letters get delivered, even when someone is sick, and there’s no wish for the cash prize underpinning his entry into the email competition. You see, he just came up with a nice response, and thought others might like to know about it.
Sounds dull? That’s definitely not the case. Leonard and Hungry Paul is surprisingly engaging, and also filled with wonderfully humorous scenes, mostly involving Hungry Paul. Highlights include a botched attempt to return a box of chocolates to the supermarket and his interview for a rather unusual (yet utterly appropriate) job. It helps that the narrator’s in on the joke, setting the scene with wry asides:
Hungry Paul began cryptically and epigrammatically, like a first-time novelist… (p.23)
At which point, it’s hard to avoid flicking back to Hession’s own first line…
It’s no surprise that the book’s been so popular. In addition to being longlisted for several prizes, it was chosen for this year’s One Dublin One Book initiative, in which everyone is encouraged to try the same book, one with a strong connection to the city. That honour has brought with it a revamped cover and flags all over Dublin, which is a successful outcome by anyone’s standards…
…and which seems oddly out of character for a book that (quietly) advocates for a simple life, championing the underdogs of suburbia. I enjoyed it immensely, bidding farewell to our two friends with great reluctance, so it’s probably for the best that having come to it so late, I’m actually just in time for Hession’s next book – and, judging by the fact that the publisher had to reprint Panenka before it even came out, it’s safe to say that this one is also set to do well. Hmm. I might just see if I can get the local library to look out for this one, too 😉