There are some books that announce their presence with fireworks and fanfare, and there are some that slip quietly in by the side door and wait for you to notice them. Leonard and Hungry Paul is understated in almost every way, yet manages to blossom into something pretty special. There’s little to summarise in the way of plot; although the novel is loosely framed by the run-up to the wedding of Hungry Paul’s sister Grace, that’s not where the real depth of the novel lies. It’s as much of a character exploration as it is a story, focusing its lens on a brief period in the lives of two best friends whose personal circumstances and life trajectories don’t quite fit the expectations of those around them – and perhaps those reading about them too. Both are single, neither are pursuing an all-consuming quest for romance. Both have spent their whole lives (they are now in their 30s) living with parents, although when the novel begins Leonard’s mother has just died, and with it the world he knows. Neither do they have high-flying careers as some sort of acceptable “substitute” for relationships: Leonard writes entries for children’s encyclopedias and Hungry Paul works a couple of days a week as a postman, standing in when the regulars are off duty. Through the course of the book, the author explores the big-hearted friendship that has kept the complications of the outside world at bay. They talk, they play board games and simply enjoy each other’s company, kindred spirits who understand each other perfectly, even if not everyone else understands them. Yet even Leonard and Hungry Paul’s tranquil existence isn’t immune from twists of fate, and little by little a trickle of small surprises and unpredictable turns of events conspire to raise the possibility that their lives might be about to change.
My overriding emotion when reading this novel was actually one of relief: finally, a contemporary novel brave enough to feature as its lead characters the type of people who are all too often sidelined in fiction of all kinds, whether it’s in book form, or on TV or film. What made the book particularly clever, I thought, was the way it went one step further, and flipped the conventions of what we expect from a novel about relationships. Paul’s sister Grace fits the “main character” bill perfectly: she has a successful career, a wedding on the horizon and just enough doubt about why she doesn’t feel as excited about it as she should to fuel a whole story of romantic angst and self-analysis. Paul and Leonard would normally be the sideshow, two single men in their thirties brought into the story ever now and then for a bit of comic relief or to provide a shoulder to cry on, before receding quietly to allow Grace, star of the show, her happy-ever-after moment. But in this novel the author gives them their own story. We care about Grace, and follow her with some interest, but the hope we have for a happy ending is well and truly on behalf of Leonard and Hungry Paul.
What was refreshing as well was the fact that you might assume at the start of the novel that these two men are somehow to be pitied, falling as they do outside the normal parameters of what society regards as a success. Yet the only thing that saddened me during the course of the novel was not the nature of Leonard and Paul themselves, but the way they were sometimes misinterpreted or misjudged by others. When Leonard makes a misstep in a potential romance he has absolutely no idea he has done so; since everything he does comes from a place of kindness, he is taken aback to find out that some people aren’t used to being on the receiving end of something he sees as so fundamental that it doesn’t even warrant thought or analysis. Grace badgers her brother Paul constantly, seeing him as a drain on her parents and completely lacking in drive or ambition, yet failing to realise that his situation isn’t borne of laziness or selfishness, but rather a certain zen-like simplicity of worldview. If your life is going smoothly, and you and those who surround you are content (and to be fair his parents have never told him outright that they aren’t) then why would you want to change things for the sake of it?
However, throughout the course of the novel, opportunities present themselves to the two friends that could mean change is on the horizon, but they come in very different forms. Leonard’s encounter with a co-worker sparks the courage to pursue a romantic relationship in a way he’s never done before, but perhaps more importantly provides him with the inspiration to unleash the creativity that’s been smouldering inside him with no outlet. For Hungry Paul, it’s his entry for a very banal local competition (leading to some laugh-out-loud funny moments) that has unexpected consequences. Yet in keeping with the tone of the novel, any changes that come aren’t cataclysmic. There are no epiphanies, no earth-shattering events that result in either of the friends suddenly shaking off their past selves and becoming different people. Indeed, what the author seems to care about more than anything is the idea that personal growth should be about embracing rather than abandoning who you are; it’s not about trying to mould yourself to someone else’s idea of achievement, but tapping into the unique abilities you possess just by being you. It sounds a bit trite when written here but believe me, in Ronan Hession’s hands it’s very powerful – and moving.
There were a few sections of the book that for me didn’t quite work as well as the bulk of it. The author clearly knows his characters inside out – their thoughts, motivations, worries and priorities – and is keen to share them with the reader in as much detail as possible. However, there were times when the desire to go inside a character’s head in such depth started to read a bit more like a psychological description than a novel. The most striking example is a chapter that describes every relationship Grace has had since her teenage years, in an attempt to provide context for why her current relationship with her fiance has so far worked out well. I’m all for building three-dimensional characters, but this felt like a slightly odd way to do it and was a little off-kilter to read.
That niggle aside, Leonard and Hungry Paul was a real pleasure, and it was a joy to spend time in the company of two men whose warmth, gentleness and complete lack of artifice is a ray of light in an angry, noisy and frenetic world. The novel, although as benign as its characters, is at the same time a quiet call-to-arms to re-evaluate the way we regard our fellow humans, and to really consider what it is that gives a person their true value. It’s all too easy, the author suggests, to overlook those who aren’t shouting the loudest, pushing themselves to the fore or meeting preconceived notions of social attainment. He knows, however, how precious and special his characters are, and shows them the care and attention they truly deserve. If you feel like you need a glimmer of hope – don’t we all – then I would tell you to pick up this book, go into a quiet corner and allow yourself to absorb all the love contained in these tender pages.
Thank you for reading x