Panenka by Rónán Hession review – moments of grace

The follow-up to cult hit Leonard and Hungry Paul is the tale of a former footballer’s second chance

Rónán Hession’s first novel, 2019’s Leonard and Hungry Paul, won the word-of-mouth success that small publishers dream of, and it hasn’t stopped rolling yet: shortlisted for half a dozen prizes, it recently made the One Dublin One Book choice for people across Hession’s home city to read.

A hard act to follow. Hession’s new novel, Panenka, adopts an amiable, sincere approach that’s similar to his debut, but with a touch of steel at the core. The hero – that word seems apt – is Joseph, a former footballer for Seneca FC living in a rundown part of an unnamed town, “a sort of spare room where all the problems were dumped”. He is 50 but seems older (grandchild, comb-over) and is nicknamed Panenka, after a risky penalty-taking move (straight down the middle) he tried 25 years earlier.

He blames his failure to score in that game not only for his team’s relegation, but for the decline of the whole town: “There are lots of unhappy people here, and it’s a huge relief for them to agree on a single cause of that unhappiness.” Caught in this trap between self-abnegation and self-obsession, it’s little wonder that Joseph suffers from crippling headaches – though his doctor has a more alarming explanation.

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