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Book Review: Leonard and Hungry Paul

TL;DR: A fantastically slow book about regular people muddling through regular life. What are you waiting for? Go read it.

I’m indebted to the school (Mums’) Book Club for making me read Leonard and Hungry Paul by Rónán Hession. I suspect I never would have heard of it otherwise. And it’s such a fantastic book.

In terms of plot, there isn’t much. It’s about two friends, Leonard and Hungry Paul (the book doesn’t explain why he’s called Hungry Paul. He just is). They play board games together. They’re both bachelors and still live in their childhood homes–Paul with his parents. The story begins when Leonard’s Mum dies, leaving him with the house. This prompts Leonard to consider his bachelor’s life, and coincidentally, he meets a woman in the office: Shelley, the fire warden. Hungry Paul’s sister, Grace, is getting married. The book follows the two friends as their lives expand, through the wedding, which is the climax. I could analyse the plot, but I don’t think the plot is the point of the book.

I love that there’s a book in the world that is entirely about the regular lives of regular people. No murder, no missing people, nothing is stolen. Everyone just goes about trying their best to muddle through. It’s about being rather than doing and how important the little things are.

The book made me feel two things. First, sheer joy that it’s possible to write this way. And, a close second, profound envy. I want to be able to write like this. And on the first go, without editing, if possible. Please and thank you.

To make my point for me, the rest of the post is examples of Rónán Hession’s writing.

The book is full of sharp, funny, witty observations.  

  • The opening sentence: “Leonard was raised by his mother alone with cheerfully concealed difficulty, his father having died tragically during childbirth.” In one sentence, Hession upends gender roles and introduces all we need to know about the main character. Isn’t it fantastic?

  • “[Hungry Paul] saw society as a sort of chemistry set, full of potentially explosive ingredients which, if handled correctly could be fascinating and educational, but which was otherwise best kept out of reach of those who did not know what they were doing.” (p. 31)

  • “Though we may be a species that prizes great minds, we are also terrified of and by our thoughts.” (p. 54)

  • “Knowing that her heart was always, always alive, and did not simply come to life when she loved, gave her an invincibility.” (p. 113)

  • “[A]n abundance of free time does not, as it turns out, provide a cure for impatience.” (p. 143)

  • “The kids’ lives are their own. From day one you are handing it back to them bit by bit, until they move on.” (p. 231)

There are such poignant descriptions I thought I would die. 

  • He describes a participant in a university quiz show as “an impossibly well-rounded twenty-year-old” (p. 8).

  • “Hungry Paul lived on a knife edge between a passion for board games and an aversion to instruction booklets.” (p. 14)

  • “... Leonard put away the tea caddy and finished stirring his own palpable milky loneliness.” (p. 25)

  • “There was a round of yawns and stretches, checking of watches and all those other unconscious preambles to the announcement of the evening’s conclusion.” (p. 37)

  • “... nothing says ‘gift’ quite like a great big hardback.” (p. 39)

  • “He thought it all over, chewing his anxiety into his thumbnail.” (p. 75)

  • “The very thought of it was enough to unleash dark Shakespearian moods within even the most stable of temperaments.”

  • “... those anything-can-happen years in the mid-twenties.” (p. 111)

  • “He knew how to build a narrative and drop in what seemed like effortless pieces of prepared spontaneity.” (p. 174)

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