Thirty-four pages into this excellent Irish novel, I was cackling with laughter for the third time. I was also being paused in my happy reading by moments of piercing empathy. They sat alongside the bursts of humour, deepening the reader’s feelings about the characters and their patient, ordinary lives.
The cover shows us a sunfish, an awkward-looking creature, seemingly out of place even in its own element. Hungry Paul’s mother Helen had said that the sunfish in the aquarium was her favourite, with ‘a look of concentrated sincerity on her face … It would have pained her beautiful heart to think that there was a living thing that would go through life unloved and she was compensating for that with a special, deliberate attempt to love it. In the same way, when her son was born after two miscarriages and almost didn’t make it, she had promised that if he survived she would not expect or ask any more from him for his life than that.’
Hungry Paul is thirtyish, and lives at home with his parents Helen and Peter, who are now retired. ‘In truth, he never left home because his family was a happy one.’ He occasionally works as a casual postman when the depot is short-staffed, and plays board games in the evening with his friend Leonard. Hungry Paul doesn’t enjoy crowds or fusses, and lives life as it is, without regrets for the past or plans for the future. He is kind and affectionate and inhabits silence as his natural element. He has begun to learn judo, and is an articulate debater about the things that interest him. His elder sister Grace is an over-organiser and a worrier, planning her wedding in a frenzy of indecision. He can give her good advice when she forgets that he might have opinions.
Leonard lives on his own in the house he had until very recently shared with his mother, who was, next to Hungry Paul, his closest friend. Now that she has died he’s not quite sure what to do with himself, but in the meantime he feels as if he’s treading water, going to his office job in the day where he writes children’s encyclopaedias, and playing board games in the evening with Hungry Paul.
Then one day, there’s a fire drill in the office, and Leonard meets Shelley the fire warden, and realises that she is breath-taking.
At around the same time, Hungry Paul enters a competition to create a new email sign-off for the Chamber of Commerce, and meets a mime artist at the prize-giving.
These are small starting points for events that propel their lives forward, and they are beautifully woven together in the smallest of small-town Irish stories where nothing in particular happens, but everything happens and it is glorious and joyful in equal measure.
Happiness, and what it is like to be happy with the people you love day to day, suffuse the novel. Many acts of friendliness and kindness occur, and nobody is unpleasant or cruel. There are uncountable wry, ironic, surprising and delightful one liners of humour, slipping in at the ends of sentences, or popping up in the middle of an earnest discussion about pyjamas. It’s normal life, celebrated by the story of these two friends, who are perhaps a little lonely, navigating their lives in a sometimes confusing world by looking out for the special things that don’t get appreciated as much as they should.
One of these is silence. Sitting in silence and listening to silence is one of Hungry Paul’s favourite things, and by the end of the novel he has created a way for other people to join him in this productive activity, in the Sunday Night Quiet Club, where they try to be as quiet as the potted sunflower he’s brought in for them to consider. With such inspired examples, we feel that Hungry Paul will continue to be happy and inspire happiness in others.
Rónán Hession, Leonard and Hungry Paul (Bluemoose Books 2019), ISBN 978-1-910422-44-1, £8.99