His name was Joseph, but for years they had called him Panenka, a name that was his sadness and his story. Panenka has spent 25 years living with the disastrous mistakes of his past, which have made him an exile in his home town and cost him his dearest relationships. Now aged 50, Panenka begins to rebuild an improvised family life with his estranged daughter and her seven year old son.
But at night, Panenka suffers crippling headaches that he calls his Iron Mask. Faced with losing everything, he meets Esther, a woman who has come to live in the town to escape her own disappointments. Together, they find resonance in each other’s experiences and learn new ways to let love into their broken lives.
I am making a bit of a habit of starting my reviews by praising Book Twitter, but honestly, joining the book community and discovering fantastic new books has been a real highlight in a year in dire need of silver linings. I have become a massive fan of Bluemoose Books, and will read everything they have published and will publish: they do proper good books. Leonard and Hungry Paul was all over Book Twitter when I joined, so I duly bought and read it, and it was such a quiet joy of a book, so deeply comforting without being in the least bit twee. Ronan Hession’s writing is original, quietly courageous, and deeply moving. I’m honestly in shock that a few months later, I have been entrusted with a proof copy of Hession’s new novel, Panenka – it is a privilege I will never take for granted, and I am so grateful to the author and the publisher for providing me with a copy in exchange for an honest review.
As Panenka isn’t out until next May, I am going to keep this brief, cryptic and spoiler-free, but I couldn’t resist sharing some initial thoughts on this wonderful book. Natasha Randall has recently been posting some interesting thoughts on Twitter about ‘quiet’ books, the ones which don’t have a juicily baited hook, or a huge drama at their centre. Hession absolutely excels at ‘quiet’. I would argue that his genius lies in revealing the truth and beauty at the heart of the everyday, in taking a story about ‘nothing’ (in big, dramatic plot terms, that is) and showing us how it is really about ‘everything.’ Panenka is suffused with poignancy in the purest sense of the word: it pierces the heart, it contains the sting of truth within its gentle rhythms and ‘small’ events.
As a character, Panenka himself is different from Leonard or Hungry Paul, not as innocent, perhaps less immediately appealing. He has lived life and made mistakes, and his flaws are woven into his character. But this adds a richness and maturity to the book: for all the quirks of Panenka’s life story, he is deeply relatable and realistic. He is not a bad man, but he is far from perfect, and his complexities and struggles ring absolutely true. As his history is gradually revealed, each strand adds to the picture, and we come to understand him in a way that feels organic and meaningful. This book is delicately and expertly crafted – Hession is a storyteller in whom a reader can place absolute trust. Panenka flows along so smoothly and subtly that the writer side of my brain couldn’t help but marvel at how much work must have gone into making it all seem so effortless, while the reader side of me just revelled happily in the quiet intricacy of the story.
The care that Hession takes in this book is evident firstly in the beautifully rounded cast of characters. Everyone gets their turn; every character is lavished with attention. We are given little insights into their situation, their feelings, their true selves that shine a spotlight on even the most minor characters. It is a kind of generosity of spirit from the author, it seems to me, and it makes the book teem with life. The second type of care that is obvious in this book is the attention Hession pays to language. I know Ronan Hession is an avid reader of translated fiction; I suspect he is also a linguist, for he has clearly has an utter delight and amusement in language, a love of words, and of turning them over to examine their hidden sides, and it makes reading his prose a joy. In terms of the story, this careful approach to language manifests itself most affectingly when Esther and Panenka converse. Esther is a wonderful character: I loved her deeply, and the way she talks to Panenka and draws him out made me think, on more than one occasion, that if we all spoke to each other like that, life would be better. Words matter, and when we choose them as carefully as Esther does (with Hession at the helm), we can change lives.
Panenka is a subtle masterpiece: the fascinating painting on the cover art could not be more appropriate. With careful, intentional strokes, Hession paints a word-portrait of a man who is neither better nor worse than any of us: he is simply a flawed human being who has made mistakes, who faces obstacles, who tries to live his life in relation to those around him. A good heart beats at the centre of this book, and though Panenka is sadder in tone than Hession’s first novel, it still has that warm glow of gentle faith in humanity, in the power of connection, in finding a way in the world that makes sense for each one of us. It is a beautiful book, and I loved it.