Leonard and Hungry Paul by Rónán Hession – celebration of life’s “ordinary” people

The synopsis of this book wasn’t one that set my heart fluttering when it was chosen for our next book club read. The only thing that intrigued me about Leonard and Hungry Paul was actually the title. Why was Paul ‘hungry” and for what?

This turned out to be a huge tease because we never get to discover the origin of the sobriquet. There are no real clues in his behaviour for example. Paul doesn’t have any extra-ordinary appetite for food. He doesn’t in fact have a hunger for anything, being content with “the innate orderliness of things.”

He’s a self-contained man in his thirties who still lives with his parents, enjoying his quiet settled routine where he stocks the bird feeders each morning and has a casual job as a postman.  In the evenings he plays Scrabble with his parents or board games with his only friend Leonard.

The pair are well matched since Leonard is equally unremarkable. He has a job researching and writing the text for children’s encyclopedias, a role that suits him because he’s fascinated by ideas and facts. He never gets credited as the author but that’s OK because “he preferred to play a minor part in someone else’s story rather than being his own star.

Shortly after the book begins, his beloved mother dies, leaving him feeling somewhat adrift and a touch lonely. He yearns to connect with someone to join him in appreciating the mystery and beauty of the universe. But he doesn’t know how to make friends let alone how to get a girlfriend.

They’re a strange choice of protagonists: two fundamentally nice guys in their thirties who share a love for facts and enjoy playing board games together. Neither seem  in tune with the twenty-first century. Hungry Paul doesn’t even have a mobile phone. What they do have is a close friendship, one in which they share a deep interest in what the other person has to say.

‘The figure in Munch’s painting isn’t actually screaming!’ Hungry Paul said. ‘Really, are you sure?’ Replied Leonard. ‘Absolutely. That’s the whole thing. The figure is actually closing his ears to block out a scream. Isn’t that amazing? A painting can be so misunderstood and still become so famous.’

The book essentially rests on how these two men break out of their limited lives and learn to be a part of the world. For Leonard that takes the form of a a relationship with a single mum. For Hungry Paul, entry into a new independent life begins with a competition.

If it all sounds charming and heart-warming, then you won’t be far off off the mark. In a world where we’re so accustomed to characters who are discontented with life and always looking for the next big adventure, it makes a refreshing change to find a novel with two men who are …. well, just nice.

It’s funny in part, but not at the expense of these two unorthodox guys. We just smile at Leonard’s awkward overtures of friendship to a woman he meets at work and Paul’s incapacity to rise to the occasion of speaking in public.

But the charm wasn’t enough for me. Even accepting that this is primarily a character rather than an event driven novel. the leisurely pace was an annoyance. I kept waiting for something – anything – dramatic to happen. Several times I thought we were approaching a plot development that would make a refreshing change to the leisurely narrative pace, only to be stalled. Disappointingly, since I found this a very irritating sub plot, even the wedding of Paul’s older sister goes swimmingly.

I didn’t dislike the book. Far from it. Much of the narrative, particularly the characterisation of Hungry Paul, was highly enjoyable and I loved Rónán Hession’s message that more people should, like Paul, “sit in stillness, listening to the silence.” But Leonard and Hungry Paul didn’t knock me out as much as it has other readers. Maybe I wasn’t in the mood for a comfort read or maybe I don’t care for comfort type books at all. It will be interesting to hear what the other book club members made of it. I suspect it will get a favourable reaction and I could be the lone voice. For other reactions take a look at the reviews posted by Ali @heavenali and Susan @ALifeInBooks.

Leonard and Hungry Paul by Rónán Hession: Footnotes

This is a debut novel published in 2019 by Bluemoose Books, an independent press based in Yorkshire, England. It was longlisted for the Republic of Consciousness Prize. Rónán Hession is an Irish writer, musician, and social worker based in Dublin. Under the stage name of Mumblin’ Deaf Ro, he has released three albums of Irish blues music. His most recent album, Dictionary Crimes, was nominated for the Choice Music Prize for album of the year

Though I read Leonard and Hungry Paul for a book club it happens to fit nicely into the time frame for #ReadIndies month which is hosted by Karen from kaggsysbookishramblings and Liz from the liddysiddal book blog.

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