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Review: Leonard and Hungry Paul

Leonard and Hungry PaulRónán Hession. Bluemoose Books; 245pp; £15 hb; £8.99 pb; 978-1910422441.

Review by Sue Leonard

Writing a weekly column featuring débuts, I’m generally aware of everything produced by Irish writers, so I was surprised when Rónán Hession’s first novel was shortlisted for a Bord Gais Energy Book Award and was anxious to procure a copy.

Published earlier this year, Leonard and Hungry Paul, picked up by a small, independent publisher, came out with little fanfare. But its fame has spread through word of mouth. And that’s appropriate for this quiet book. I sense that the two protagonists, who go through life more or less anonymously, would rather approve of this gradual and growing success.

When the book opens, Leonard is feeling melancholic. His mother has died, and he’s starting to resent the way he’s being treated as a ghost-writer of children’s encyclopaedias.

‘It was hard to put his heart into it at times when all his good ideas were either rejected without being understood, or appropriated and credited to someone else.’

And when his friend, Hungry Paul, who lives mainly in his own head, mutters that his life seems to be getting smaller, Leonard knows exactly how he feels.

This thought spurs Leonard into action. He starts talking to Shelley, a woman at work, and gains the courage to ask her out. And, feeling inspired, he begins to write a children’s book of his own, and in so doing, gains passion for his work.

During this time, Leonard worries about his friend. As his own life improves, will Hungry Paul get left behind? Hungry Paul’s sister, Grace, is worried too. Struggling to juggle her high-powered job with her final wedding plans, she fears that her brother, shunning independence, will become an increasing burden for their parents.

There are some gorgeous scenes in this novel. The one that sees Leonard practising conversations in preparation for his first date, are reminiscent of those in Martin Amis’s The Rachel Papers, (Though Amis’s protagonist is a teenager, whereas Leonard is in his thirties.)

Very little happens in this novel, but the gradual unpeeling of character, and the way in which, through doing practically nothing, Hungry Paul’s assets are recognised, so shining a light on his future, make for a gentle but deeply satisfying read.

Leonard and Hungry Paul is almost deceptively well written. It’s clever, and insightful; the kind of book that makes you nod in recognition, and marvel at a writer’s ability to voice something you, yourself have thought, yet never articulated.

Overall, this début examines the people who, through living quiet lives, generally escape our notice. If there’s a message here, it’s that people generally have hidden depths, and that whilst there’s a lot of kindness in the world, much of it is expressed in private. There have been some admirable debuts published in 2019, but this one, for me, towers over the rest of them. Rónán Hession has a three-book deal; I can’t wait to see what he produces next.

Review by Sue Leonard

Leonard and Hungry Paul is out now in all good bookshops or order direct.