Leonard and Hungry Paul are two friends in their thirties who have many things in common, one of which is that they both still live with their parents. Or at least Leonard did, his mother dies at the start of the book (his father died when he was a baby). Orphaned, and missing her, he takes refuge in family life at his friend Hungry Paul’s house. If you’re wondering why Paul is called Hungry Paul you’ll have to wonder on because I don’t think it’s ever explained. He doesn’t seem to eat any more or less than the average person. I wouldn't care except it’s in the title and Leonard and Hungry Paul is a far more interesting sounding book, to my mind, than Leonard and Paul, which is effectively the book you get.
Hungry Paul’s family consists of his mum and dad, Helen and Peter, and sister Grace, who is the go-getter of the story in that she has a job and a fiancée and a life of her own. Hungry Paul’s parents are retired, although his mum still works a couple of days a week, and spends the rest of the time looking after her family, feeding the birds, and volunteering to visit elderly patients at the local hospital. They have aspirations to go on holiday without Hungry Paul, but not a cruise, '"I'd prefer not to go on any snooze cruises or anything too sedentary."' says Peter. I don’t want to give you the impression that they’re keen to get away from Hungry Paul, though, because on the contrary they like having him around. He’s good company, useful for games that work better with more than two people like Scrabble and he helps feed the birds. 'In truth, he never left home because his family was a happy one, and maybe it's rare than it ought to be that a person appreciates such things' Hession writes.
I loved one online reviewer who said despairingly ‘I have been so focused on the idea that character is what matters in a novel, that I have been underestimating the importance of plot.’ Things happen, of course. In fact it’s a book packed with incident. Leonard’s mother dies. Grace gets married. Leonard meets a woman he is attracted to, Shelley, and slightly to his surprise on learning she likes him back, starts a relationship. Paul enters a competition run by the local chamber of commerce. His parents think about planning a holiday. But it's true this is a novel that avoids the conventional ideas about narrative tension, rupture and repair. You can read more about Hession's thinking on the subject of writing a narratively quiet novel here.
Ok. I'll come out with it. I had a few issues with this novel. The characters felt very thin, to me, charming though they were. They don't have much in the way of inner lives existing primarily as vehicles for the author's ideas. Another problem for me is that the novel unfolds in what feels like real time. So characters don’t really change or grow because in life these things take time. I’m not the same person now I was in my twenties, but it has taken twenty years for me to develop into the person I am today. If Rónán Hession had, like Proust, written seven volumes I think we might have got somewhere but as it was I kept waiting in vain for these people to have some moment of insight, for life to throw something at them that couldn’t just be shrugged off with a cup of tea and a biscuit. Yashwina Canter writing in The Believer magazine was charmed by the experience of reading a book where she didn’t have to worry about 'what-will-happen-next apprehension-fatigue' but for me, I find, writing needs to have some tension otherwise why do I care?
Another issue for me was the dialogue. I was able to lose myself quite happily in the description and reflective passages, indeed enjoyed these parts of the book very much, but as soon as characters started speaking to one another it fell apart. There was something stilted and unrealistic about it that disrupted the careful portraits the author had been building up. It's almost as if the realism with which he created their world was so successful, the clunky dialogue seemed all the more jarring. Peter comes into the kitchen one morning and asks Helen how she slept. '"Fine, thanks love. Are you a bit congested? You were a little snorey last night", said Helen. "It's spring. Hay fever is probably on its way. Any sign of our son and heir? If he's sleeping in I'll go ahead and make the porridge for the two of us."' And so it goes on.
That said, there’s lots that I liked about this book. It’s full of observation of everyday details and interactions that feel comforting, so deeply do you recognise and understand them. There isn’t an unlikeable character in the whole book, except possibly the academic who puts his names to the children’s encyclopaedias Leonard writes, and even his vainglorious attitude is defused by Leonard's peaceable acceptance of it.
Reading this book felt like Sunday afternoon at my parents’ house, with all the ease and familiarity that implies. It’s a book that never steps outside of its comfort zone and doesn’t ask you to as a reader. Instead it celebrates that comfort zone and the baseline observation that most people in affluent countries who basically have everything they could ever need or want in life behave kindly towards one another. I found the passivity of it slightly maddening, and yet, I can't deny the writing is original and full of quirky charm. I was pleased to have read this book and though I didn't love it, I think it would be excellent for book club – I'm dying for someone to pick me up on it and convince me of its merits. And while the characters are fading and the plot such as it was has already melted away (I finished it three days ago and genuinely now cannot remember what happened at the end) what has lingered with me is a new appreciation of small, everyday acts of kindness and the idea that the more we practise them, the better we become. Hession has a new book out this month, Panenka, and I'm more than a little curious to read it.
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Further reading: If relentless news stories lead you to despair Rutger Bregman's Humankind will cheer you up. He deconstructs the negative picture the media tends to paint of humanity and the book is full of enjoyably surprising research showing that in extremis humans actually tend to behave with kindness, tolerance and mutual respect. Leonard and Hungry Paul also made me think of Rob Temple's Born to be Mild, another celebration of ordinariness in all its forms as the author tries to overcome his anxiety issues by setting himself a series of everyday challenges. While I appreciated the gentle humour of Leonard and Hungry Paul, Rob Temple is a comic genius and this book frequently had me laughing out loud. Also, there was something about Leonard that reminded me strongly of Arthur Dent and so I throw in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. If they were to learn the Earth was about to be demolished to make way for a new hyperspace by-pass I would expect Leonard and Hungry Paul to take the news calmly, perhaps working out whether they'd have time for one last game of Yahtzee. And finally let's not forget Early Morning Riser by Katherine Heiny, which I reviewed a couple of weeks back and which is also a novel that celebrates kindness and the everyday.