Book Review: Leonard and Hungry Paul // Rónán Hession

Kindness is rarely looked upon with fondness when it comes to art. It is a view due for an assessment that kind is often deemed synonymous with boring. Rónán Hession’s debut novel Leonard and Hungry Paul is an extraordinary gentle wonder. Hession is perhaps better known as the Irish blues musician Mumblin’ Deaf Ro, based in Dublin. His main characters sit in warm kitchens, in warm light, and play board games in lieu of drama. Terrible external fears slide easily from their shoulders as they put the quiet pieces of puzzles and the world to rights. His plot pads forward through life’s events like soft footsteps on a carpeted floor.

Nothing is particularly high stakes. We are met with the lead up to a family wedding, the burial of a mother and a tentative first love in the third decade of life, but it is the in-between where Hession’s writing shines. Leonard and Hungry Paul, two similarly shy best friends, with an interest in pastimes, meet up weekly and in their witty conversation invite the reader to sit with them in their cosy nook. Leonard is a nervous children’s encyclopaedia ghost-writer, who, having recently lost his mother, is alone for the first time in his thirty years of life. Hungry Paul, on the other hand, is a part-time mail man, motivated only by his considerate helping of those around him. He lives with his retired parents, has recently taken up judo and moves through life at a measured pace. 

The novel is the sunny meander of little and ordinary lives and the plot volleys easily between the two men. Leonard’s grief of his mother’s passing does not consume him in any sinister way beyond conditional human loneliness. Hungry Paul feels poked and prodded by outside forces who attempt to impede on his acceptance of the innate orderliness of things. It is by the sheer want to remain in each other’s company that the pair remain friends, their schedules to the outside world seemingly never overlapping.

There is a loveliness in reading about a fond platonic friendship where terms of affection like “old pal” are used like punctuation. In their parallel tracked lives, both men encounter qualms and quiet revelations. Hungry Paul volunteers with his mother at the hospital and forms a connection with an elderly woman without even exchanging a word. Whilst this old Mrs Hawthorne barks at anyone else who enters the ward, she is still with Hungry Paul, who visits her bedside weekly to hold her hand. It is an odd but poignant detail.

The story is intergenerational in its telling. Leonard’s loss of his mother leaves a gap, whilst Hungry Paul’s parents – Helen and Peter – are given fleshed out characteristics; they flirt and have inside jokes, their retirement neither dulling their traits nor their companionship. Grace, Hungry Paul’s older sister, is introduced as an outside force. She is the fierce eldest child and feels immense responsibility and anxieties, that have not been burdened upon her by anyone but herself. The brief but telling history of Grace’s life; school friends, old boyfriends, her moody mid-twenties, is used to add colour to the entire family dynamic. Grace, successful in her work, worries about time, her aging parents and her brother’s apparent lack of ambition. It is her worldly busyness which gushes in to propel forward the plot and to cast gentle light on how precious the miniature pocket of Hungry Paul’s home life is.

In the climax of the novel, Hungry Paul confronts his sister’s fluster. He lays out a mindful, accepting philosophy of life in the face of her projected protests. Their father, Peter, also does this to a lesser degree for Grace when she is having overwrought stress about how to be in love correctly. It is a disarming wisdom that hits unexpectedly hard, but not cruelly within the light-hearted prose.

The novel is an example of how kindness need not be stagnant. It is humorous and clever, charmingly nerdy and earnestly sincere. The woes of the two main characters are their own awkwardness and anecdotal downfalls. They both suffer from a lack of proficiency in reading social cues; Leonard nearly spoils his budding relationship with his own inexperience, Hungry Paul fails in his junior level judo lessons. But in the midst of these silly moments there are real, plaintive revelations. In a particularly poignant moment, Leonard independently learns how peace is not quite happiness, but an acceptance of things as they are. With as many doubts and trip-ups as in our day to day lives, Leonard and Hungry Paul is not necessarily an optimistic novel as it rarely looks expectantly to the future. It is, however, a very hopeful one and one which should be cherished.

Leonard and Hungry Paul was first published in February 2019

Words by H. R. Gibs

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