Leonard and Hungry Paul by Rónán Hession
After seeing several good reviews for Leonard and Hungry Paul, it has been on my ‘to-read’ list for a little while now. I finally downloaded it on kindle and a grey, wet, and windy week seemed a good time to start reading a novel praised for its quiet hopefulness. It was a quick read, all about ordinary people in their everyday life and it didn’t take long for me to discover why it has been getting such good reviews. There is something comforting about the slow, small changes that happen over the course of this understated narrative.
Leonard and Hungry Paul primarily follows the two eponymous characters as they both face the prospect of change in their lives. Leonard is grieving his mother who has recently died and with whom he had shared a house for his whole life. As he struggles to feel at home not just in the house but in his own life without her, the beginnings of a new romance push him even further out of his comfort zone. Hungry Paul and his family, meanwhile, are preparing for his sister Grace’s wedding, an event which prompts them all to start thinking about the future. Even as his parents and Grace worry about what will happen to Hungry Paul and who will care for him, he is already starting to take small steps towards his own independence.
In the midst of the quietness of the narrative, it is really the characters which compel the reader to engage with the narrative. I said in my introduction to this review that this is a novel about very ordinary people. Perhaps the exception to that is Hungry Paul, who is probably the more extraordinary character in the narrative in his oblivious attitude towards the world, but his chapters are full of a quiet contentment that feels comfortable to the reader. I suspect that every reader would have a different character they particularly relate to, which would be likely to change depending on their age and stage of life. For me, the most interesting characters were Grace and Leonard: Grace’s struggle in balancing her independence with a subtle sense of loss for her childhood is surely relatable for any 20-30-something who has moved away from home, no matter how long they have lived on their own. Grace’s moments of change, despite the big event of a wedding, come more internally as she starts to let go of the role she has always felt she had to play within the family. Leonard’s journey, by contrast, is more external as he makes concrete decisions to step outside of his comfort zone in order to change his work situation and his love life, despite his fear and awkwardness, and it is hard for the reader not to root for him as he navigates these changes.
Hession’s writing is a great strength of the novel; from the first chapter, I was making a note of lines that stood out or hit home. In particular, I thought that the portrayal of grief in Leonard’s chapters were very well-handled, allowing the reader to step into a very personal experience for the character. From his initial inaction and existential worry, to the jolt of realising the wedding plus one would have been for his mother, to his learning to let his home feel like a home once more, Hession leads the reader through the quiet, personal nature of grief.
Ultimately, this is a novel which I am glad to have read and I have a feeling I will probably re-read from time to time. For me, reading Leonard and Hungry Paul evoked similar reactions to reading Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book, with both drawing the reader into the small dramas of quiet and ordinary lives. I would definitely recommend this book to anyone who wants an easy, quiet read and I look forward to reading more from Hession.