A musician and storyteller through song for many years, Rónán Hession infuses his debut novel with tangible realness, honesty and delight. Hession takes on the familiar and mines it for its beauty and significance, as well as its whimsy. With an insightfully observant eye that’s keen on details, Hession illustrates a larger picture of what being human means and how we can confound yet ultimately support one another. Leonard and Hungry Paul is a reminder that we’re all just humans doing our best to be kind, to others and ourselves.
Dublin-based songwriter Hession has written a tender and hilarious debut. The title characters are unforgettable, and their shared amazement of the world is a gift to readers. Essential reading, especially in these times.
What a curious book this is. You don’t often get good novels about ordinary people living tranquil lives almost completely devoid of incident – no shocking discoveries, no crises, no coming to terms with a dark past ... a charming, warm-hearted celebration of all that is treasurable about everyday life ... It’s witty, but the jokes, refreshingly, are never at anyone’s expense ... this is very much a two-hander, and without the low-key dynamism of Leonard as a counterbalance, Hungry Paul’s story would go nowhere ... The leisurely pace flags further when it comes to the subplots, which involve even less remarkable relatives. Here the novel struggles to escape the fate of all books about unexciting people: they’re not exciting. That, of course, is the point. We’re meant to be appreciating the unappreciated aspects of life. But I defy any author, even one as winning as Hession, to make us savour a detailed discussion of who’ll order from the set menu and who’ll go for the a la carte ... Nevertheless, this is an appealing book thanks to Hession’s engaging style, which flits lightly across the emotional range like a harpist plucking the strings. He is often inventively funny ... These flashes of wit and poignancy make something exceptional out of what might easily have been humdrum, vindicating WH Auden’s assertion that the novelist must learn 'how to be / One after whom none think it worth to turn'.
In many ways it is one of the most traditional classifications of comedy––it has its roots in Greek New Comedy, centering on a romantic plot with familial affairs, stock characters, and a generally happy ending. As a result, the outline of the book closely follows the type of comedies we have come to recognize from television and film ... With the very white, upper-middle class upbringings and high-mindedness of the two Scrabble buffs creating a comparable effect to the stock comedy character pedants, Frasier and Niles Crane, various laughter inducing scenarios arise from their social blunders and erroneous assumptions as they advance from refuge ... It lands somewhere between endearing and frustrating, and buttresses one of the book’s themes about learning to find a balance across knowledge and experience– both being just as important in an education ... Hession’s narrative is cheerful and funny. But it is also a meditation on loneliness, fear, and what we fill our lives up with to compensate for them.
A curious trick of this book is its refusal to engage with the fiscal or cultural currencies mentioned above. The outside world is only barely sketched: a Tesco here, an Italian restaurant there; we aren’t told where on the planet we are. Nor are we afforded the conflict this kind of illustration can give ... can be read with an anti-capitalist bent. All around, the corporate machine revs its gears, but within the story are characters who prefer not to participate ... The book triumphs in this unassuming rebellion, and ultimately the appeal to live in the now, appreciate the little things, treat life not as a duty to some external expectation, but as something to be enjoyed, is a relevant one. But what annoys me (and I admit, getting annoyed at this book feels like getting annoyed at my dad for not knowing what 'woke' means – this book is decidedly not woke, not cool) is that the women never get to participate in the triumph. They are bridezillas, worriers, small talkers, pawns of the frantic external world, who must finally be told off for being so, so that the central characters can carry the thesis of the text...It’s not easy to remain happy and a feminist at the same time, it seems ... Perhaps the characters Leonard and Hungry Paul most resemble are Sheldon and Leonard of The Big Bang Theory – a TV series in which women aren’t properly characterised until around series three when it is decided that geek girls might add some flavour to the soup. I long for geek girls. And with a two-book deal under his belt, perhaps Hession will provide them. Next time. For now, all I can do is what the book asks: take it for what it is. One of life’s simple pleasures.
Readers in search of high drama and action will not find it in Hession’s understated debut; rather, they will meet lovely, beautifully-realized characters. An especially delightful read for Anglophiles.