- 21 May 21
Lovely touch on the ball from young Hession in the number seven shirt.
Riding high thanks to debut novel Leonard And Hungry Paul being deservedly chosen for the excellent One Dublin One Book initiative - if you were recently hit by a bus then the last thing you saw might well have been an ad for it, Hession strikes while the iron is hot with tome number two. Panenka tells the story of a former footballer, named for the penalty he missed, which brought his world crashing down, and who now, years later, lives with his daughter Marie-Thérése and her son, Arthur.
It’s as much their story as it is his - Marie-Thérése has to negotiate the minefield of a promotion that changes how those who work around her act - and the same goes for her estranged husband Vincent, whose funded-by-a-loan-from-Panenka cafe isn't exactly proving to be a goldmine and who is still very much in love with his wife. In addition, there is Panenka’s met-by-chance new friend Esther, who has moved to the area to get away from her own problematic past, and the patrons of Vincent’s café, like poor Anthony, trapped in a marriage gone very cold, and the sadly deluded BABA (two degrees, you see, and even that's suspect), posing with the same book for years, who all have their own tale to tell.
You could justifiably take your hat off to the way Hession handles any and all of these characters, but the coupling he creates with Panenka and Esther is especially impressive, a blossoming adult relationship, built on the human need for companionship. When he tells her that "time with you feels different to any other type of time", it's as simple and as accurate a description of what love is really like as you're likely to read in this, or any other, year.
Through flashbacks we're filled in on how Panenka got where he is, falling for Marie-Thérése's mum, Lauren, who stuck with him as he earned his studs in the lower league before returning to the local team, Senaca FC. Lucius Annaeus Senaca the Younger was part of stoicism school of philosophy, which tells us that the path to fulfilment and happiness lies in accepting events as they are. I don't know a lot about football - as you can probably tell - but that philosophy certainly doesn't apply to the fans of the beautiful game that I pal around with, which is probably the reason behind Hession's choice of team name in the first place, but I digress. Penenka is brought back into the fold by the marvellously named man-with-a-plan, Cesar Fontaine, and together they raise the town's hopes until our man dashes them all during the last home game of the season, against bitter rivals Olympic, when he misses a free shot from the white spot. That's right, I am taking over the HP sports pages from next month.
Just when Panenka gets his life back in some sort of order, the universe gives him, if you’ll excuse the pun, another kick - he's tormented nightly by pressure pains behind his face, a condition which he calls the iron mask. You don't need to be an M.D. to suspect that he might be facing a red card as a result of this challenge, and it’s the ways in which he, and the people around him, deal with this, and the other road blocks that life throws down in front of us all, that fills out this perfectly wrought slice of magical realism. Music heads might be familiar with Hession in his former Choice Music Prize nominated guise as Mumblin' Deaf Ro, but if Panenka is anything to go by then let me clumsily declare - in the spirit of great sporting clichés like "game of two halves" and "at the end of the day" - that music's loss is very much writing's gain.