REVIEW: Leonard and Hungry Paul – Ronan Hession

Author: Ronan Hession (twitter)

UK Publisher: Blue Moose Books

Genre: UpLit, contemporary fiction, literary fiction

Leonard and Hungry Paul is the story of two friends who ordinarily would remain uncelebrated. It finds a value and specialness in them that is not immediately apparent and prompts the idea that maybe we could learn from the people that we overlook in life. Leonard and Hungry Paul change the world differently to the rest of us: we try and change it by effort and force; they change it by discovering the small things they can do well and offering them to others.

I had heard about this book a lot on twitter since early this year, so when I was feeling flush over the summer I bought it, feeling pleased to be supporting an independent publisher and a high street bookshop, and a debut author. Gold star for me. I have been saving it since then because all reports suggested that it was such a gentle, calm book that I wanted to find a time where things were quiet enough for me to savour it – where my outer circumstances would match my reading material. Perhaps fittingly enough for the book, my life didn’t slow down so I was forced to carve my own bit of calm to make space for it.

This isn’t really a book about anything, but at the same time it feels huge. It’s not long, at 240 pages exactly, but there is so much crammed in there you can’t finish it quickly. It’s not a book to rush, it’s a book which forces you to slow yourself down and leave behind the chaos and flurry of the world until you’re in the same rhythm of the characters you’re reading about. It’s a quiet, lovely book, about quiet, lovely people.

Leonard and Hungry Paul charts the lives of two friends across a handful of weeks, two friends who have fallen into comfortable habits and routines with no desire to really change their happy lives. Unfortunately, the death of Leonard’s mother forces them to start reconsidering their futures. Having lived with his mother all his life, her death leaves Leonard dealing with silence and loneliness in a way he hadn’t before, having been content with their friendship and their coexistence. Hungry Paul, who still happily lives with his parents, finds himself considering changing his own habits in light of his only friend looking to expand his own world beyond their regular board game nights.

It’s not a book about big life changes, or new starts. It’s about people reshaping their lives to compensate for unexpected spaces. It covers grief and love and anxiety and fear of change, but all of it is done with this warm care and support. Although Leonard feels lonely after the death of his mother, Hungry Paul’s family are there to ensure he isn’t alone. They’re there to gently coax Hungry Paul into expanding his world as well, to find his own way. It’s less of a catalyst and more of a blossoming for both of them, managed at their own pace and with the cushioned support of people who love them.

Love is a theme throughout the book, as well as kindness. You see all different kinds of love – that of a couple married for many years with two grown children, that of parents for their children, and children for their parents. There’s the love between a young couple about to get married but nervous they don’t feel the way they’re supposed to, and the fluttering, cautious excitement of a new romance. And, of course, the love that encompasses filling bird feeders every day. All the characters have bird feeders, and it’s a shorthand for their generosity to those who need it.

There’s something wonderfully understated about the book as well. Every person we spend time with is thoughtful and contemplative in their own way, assessing the needs of those around them and trying to do their best to help them out of a deep love. This sets the pace and tone too, meaning that as readers we are drawn into delicate, loving, thoughtful meanderings. We have to slow our own pace to match the narrative. It’s not a book you can read quickly because these aren’t quick sentiments. They’re rich, thick, and warm like a toffee sauce.

I love the little details around the characters. Leonard ghost-writes children’s encyclopedias, while Paul is a substitute postman on Mondays. There’s also a contest to come up with a new phrase to sign off business emails – with a prize of £10,000 – and Hungry Paul enters it. In any other book the run up to the contest and its outcome would be the driving plot, the result would be the resolution for both narrative and characters. Not in this. Equally, in other books minor tensions like Leonard missing game night for a date, or Grace trying to tell her brother he needs to move out of the house, would be spun into big dramatic moments which had repercussions and provided tensions throughout the book. It would be stressful and hard to read. This book has no stress. Any conflict, such as it is, is handled with such loving, gentle truth, as Hession puts it towards the end, that even when any occurs it is smoothed over with barely a ripple. It was probably the most relaxing book I’ve ever read.

I will be recommending this book to a fair few people I know. It’s such a wholesome book, and a perfect bit of peace which is desperately needed in the world today.

Briefly:

  • I loved how warm every word of this book was. Everything the characters said or did was delivered with a deep affection, between them and also to the reader. It was so wholesome.
  • Grace and her husband left the church after their wedding to the exact same song my husband and I left the church to on our wedding day – The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba, on the organ. That made me very happy.
  • We never actually find out why Hungry Paul is called Hungry Paul, we just accept that everyone calls him that, even his family.

Rating: 5/5 – This is a book which could work as mindfulness therapy. It’s measured and warm and gentle, and very readable.

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