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Panenka by Rónán Hession

Writing.ie | Book Reviews | Literary Fiction

By Swirl and Thread

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“His name was Joseph, but for years they had called him Panenka, a name that was his sadness and his story.”

Panenka by Rónán Hession is published with Bluemoose Books. From the author of the very moving and memorable Leonard and Hungry Paul comes another stunning novel packed with writing that goes straight to the soul of the reader. This is a book that is quotable from every single page and is most certainly one that I will return to again and again. It is a compact book that packs a very powerful and affecting punch.

If, like me, you have absolutely no knowledge of football, Rónán Hession provides the reader with a definition of the term Panenka at the very beginning of the book –

‘In football, a penalty technique in which the taker chips the ball artfully into the centre of the goal, counting on the likelihood that the goalkeeper will have dived to either side’

Panenka, the book, derives its name from this football term as the main character in the novel, Joseph, was given the name Panenka when his career took a nosedive that was to have a serious impact on his life and the path he took. Now in his fifties, Panenka is suffering from severe migraines, or as he calls them, his ‘Iron Mask.’ Living with his one-time estranged daughter, Marie-Thérèse and her young son, Arthur, he is in denial as to what the cause could be. He chooses to remain an anonymous individual in his hometown, living in an area known as the Crucible in a town that is obsessive over football and the local team Seneca FC. He drinks in the same pub, he goes to the same barbers, he has his own small group of friends. He doesn’t stand out. He just gets on with his life. Marie-Thérèse is now a trainee manager at a supermarket. Her marriage is in a funk and moving in with her Dad gave them an opportunity to reflect on past mistakes and right a few wrongs. Her mother has since left town, moving on with her own life, and Marie-Thérèse is now considering some life-changing decisions about hers and Arthur’s future.

Panenka has to face a few realities about his own life, his future and his relationships, both past and present.

‘The ledger recorded that those who had loved him most had lost the most’

He makes a detour to a different barber shop one day, one he hadn’t been in before, where he meets Esther. Esther is the new owner, a gentle and caring individual. She sees into Panenka’s eyes. She sees his hurt, his pain, as also experienced by herself recently. She recognises a similar soul and listens to him, really listens to him. Together they tentatively embark on a friendship as Esther breaks down a few of Panenka’s self-imposed walls.

Joseph (Panenka), Marie-Thérèse, Arthur and Esther. Four individuals. Four lives. Panenka is their story.

‘Habituated loneliness was bearable, but the heart was not built to endure glimpses of what it could never truly have’

Rónán Hession is an exceptional writer. He creates the most beautiful stories with the most gorgeous, yet ordinary, characters and, with a stroke of a pen, captures the reader and immerses them completely into his world. In Panenka, each character has its own distinct role, all creating a picture-perfect cast for the scene in hand. Simplicity is key. Subtlety is important. There is nothing, or no-one, loud or brash looking for your undivided attention over another. Building relationships and trust are very strong themes running through the book, with a human vulnerability of exposing feelings to others a very central element.

Rónán Hession has a very distinct style to his writing, one that he has made his own. Both his books,Panenka and Leonard and Hungry Paul, leave the reader deep in thought, considering what they have read. Every sentence, every piece of dialogue is wonderfully woven together to create a powerful, yet in many ways, understated masterpiece of writing. I read Leonard and Hungry Paul last year and I have just listened to the audiobook. It made sense to continue immersing myself, albeit temporarily, in Rónán Hession’s mesmerising words by picking up Panenka. I read it in one day. Once started Panenka is not a book to put down. It literally demands 100% of your attention and deserves it all.

Panenka is a different read to Leonard and Hungry Paul. There is a tragedy and a sadness lingering in the background that stays with you after turning the final page. The characters have a very different mindset and approach to life than in Leonard and Hungry Paul. They are individuals that we can possibly relate to more in many ways. Panenka is an exceptionally written story of society and how, as a people, our behaviour can have a permanent impact on the lives of others.

The artwork on the cover is so intense. It is clearly a man but yet we cannot see beyond the brushstroke. We cannot make out the features. We cannot derive a personality. We need to make our own interpretation of what we see and this does change over the course of the book.

Panenka is first and foremost a book about people. It is a book that draws the reader into the world of the characters with an ease and a flow that I have now come to expect from Rónán Hession. Contemplative and expressive,Panenka is quite simply a joy to read, and reread again. A novel with great depth exploring human fragility and vulnerability,Panenka is another extraordinary read from an extraordinary writer.

(c) Swirl and Thread

Order your copy online here.

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