Panenka by Rónán Hession
Published by Bluemoose Books
Available from Bluemoose Books, West End Lane Books and From All Good Bookshops.
What They Say
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.
What I Say
Sometimes, you discover an author and their novel, and it just completely takes you by surprise, because it is so incredibly perfect you cannot understand why everyone doesn’t know about it. When I first read Leonard and Hungry Paul, and told everyone I could to read it, it was so amazing to eventually watch the United Kingdom fall in love with this devastatingly quiet, but total powerhouse of a novel.
As soon as I knew that Rónán was writing a second novel – hand on heart? I was worried for myself and for Rónán. How could anything possibly match up to Leonard and Hungry Paul? Yet as soon as my copy arrived from Kevin, I knew I had to read it.
Panenka is a beautiful, measured and incredibly powerful novel about love and acceptance. It recognises how we may believe that we are better off on our own, but ultimately that interaction and connection with other people is the very thing that brings us peace and contentment and a sense of purpose.
Joseph, who is also known as Panenka, was playing for his local team Seneca FC. During a vital match, he used a technique in football during a penalty kick where the taker gently kicks underneath the ball, causing it to rise and fall within the centre of the goal, which fools the goalkeeper. Unfortunately that move cost his team the game and they were relegated.
Panenka and his family had to move, and his marriage ended. Now a grandfather and loving father to his daughter Marie-Thérese, Joseph has debilitating headaches and facial pain so severe that he nicknames it The Iron Mask. When he eventually decides to find out what is happening, he discovers that he has an inoperable tumour.
While Marie-Thérese deals with being a single working mother to Arthur, as well as having to decide whether to take a promotion at the Supermarket chain she works at, she is also conscious of how her Dad is on his own.
When Panenka goes to get his hair cut at a Barbers, Esther is the hairdresser who does it for him. The thing is, he has not been touched by anyone in such an innocent yet intimate way, and the intensity of Esther being so close to him, touching his neck and hair is so overwhelming he breaks down. Honestly, this scene makes me cry every time I think about it. Reading Panenka during the Lockdown, where my widowed Dad had been living on his own in Wales, no one from his family allowed to visit him, that solitary space in his life where my Mum should effortlessly be made me think about him endlessly. Can you imagine being on your own with no human touch or hugs for such a long time? That is what Rónán captures so succinctly and is heartbreaking for us to read – because it could be any one of us, and now more than ever we absolutely understand how that would feel.
As Panenka and Esther becomes closer, he does not tell her about what he is going through. Their tentative steps towards each other take an unforeseen turn when Panenka has an awful attack. Everything everyone thought about Panenka is about to be changed forever, and he has to decide whether he wants to live a life of solitude or find the strength to finally admit what he truly wants.
It is also important to note that Panenka is not some sort of heroic, perfect man. He is flawed, and knows that he is, he has had his fair share of of hurtful life experiences and as a result has shut himself away and disconnected himself from any sort of emotional connection beyond his immediate family. This vulnerability is the very thing that made me feel even closer to him, and that is why Ronan is so skilled as a writer, because he understands that in order to empathise with a character, we need to see something of ourselves in them.
For me, the reason that Panenka worked so well because it is set in a world we can all relate to and understand. This is not a universe of grand gestures and bold declarations of love. Panenka and Esther move closer together because they simply recognise in each other the desire to feel that emotional and personal connection to someone who takes them for who they truly are, without any need for pretence or facade.
As the novel does not rely on massive dramatic events, the power and the beauty of this novel comes from the portrayal of the characters and their dialogue. Ronan makes sure that we see every person for who they really are, Their hopes, dreams and fears are laid bare for us on the page, and by slowly unravelling their histories and regrets, their joy and pain, do we align our empathy and understanding with each one.
Panenka shows us so much of the world and lived experiences in so few pages, How that we may believe we are alone, but that we only have to look around us to see how loved and needed we really are. It is also a novel that is about how the everyday and the mundane may seem unremarkable, but in fact the little gestures and quiet actions are the ones that have the most power to change our world should we choose to see them.
Undoubtedly this is one of those rare novels that not only shows that for each of us there is hope and a chance to love and be loved, but also that in being willing to open ourselves up to those around us, we can finally find the connections and comfort we all deserve. Having the courage to speak up and make ourselves vulnerable may seem impossible, but Panenka so perfectly illustrates the joy and possibilities that await us when we do.
I absolutely and completely loved it.
Thank you so much to Kevin at Bluemoose Books for my gifted proof copy.