There wasn’t much in the way of comfort reading in my previous blog post, but there is in this one in the form of Leonard and Hungry Paul by Ronan Hession which has become a word-of-mouth success since it was published by the small independent press Bluemoose Books last year. It is a novel which defies straightforward genre categorisation and tells the story of two quiet friends in their thirties who live seemingly unremarkable lives driven by familiar routine. Leonard is a ghostwriter who has a growing bond with his colleague Shelley while Hungry Paul (his nickname is never explained) lives with his retired parents who are busy with preparations for the wedding of his sister Grace who is frustrated by Hungry Paul’s lack of ambition in life. Hession is particularly skilful at showing how introverts deal with both small-scale events such as the awkwardness of small talk on a first date as well as the bigger picture questions of what they really want from life. Other than the rhythms of everyday scenes, there is little in the way of plot which happily means there is no attempt to improve their characters via a saccharine journey towards them becoming more extroverted. ‘Leonard and Hungry Paul’ is an understated gem of a book.
Black Teeth and a Brilliant Smile by Adelle Stripe is less comforting and more gritty than ‘Leonard and Hungry Paul’ but equally compelling. It is a fictionalised account of the life of the playwright Andrea Dunbar who was born in Bradford in 1961 and died at the age of just 29 from a brain haemorrhage while drinking at her local pub. She lived on the Buttershaw estate during the Thatcher years against a backdrop of factory closures, social inequality and abusive relationships. Her talent for writing plays was spotted at school and led to her work being staged at the Royal Court Theatre in London. Her play ‘Rita, Sue and Bob Too’ was later made into a successful film. However, her autobiographical realist portrayal of life on the estate exactly as she observed it put her in conflict with both the estate’s residents who were insulted by the grim depiction of their lives as well as middle-class Londoners who were unable to comprehend that the scenes in Dunbar’s work were so close to reality. The dialogue is particularly excellent and very much in the spirit of Dunbar’s writing, blending kitchen sink noir with black humour. Whether or not you are already familiar with Dunbar’s work, ‘Black Teeth and a Brilliant Smile’ is well worth reading.
Lockdown means I have been slowly making my way through my TBR list and a book I have been reading to read for ages is Commonwealth by Ann Patchett. The only other novel by Patchett I have read is Bel Canto which I had mixed feelings about, but I thought her 2016 novel would be much more up my street. It opens at a christening party for Fix and Beverley Keating’s daughter Franny in California in the 1960s, where Beverly begins an affair with local attorney Bert Cousins who turns up uninvited with a bottle of gin (because why not?). Beverly and Bert eventually marry and the book explores the new family dynamic between the six step-siblings who have been thrown together involuntarily by this arrangement. Subsequent chapters take place at intervals over the following five decades so the novel feels like a collection of interlinked short stories. Some of these land better than others, but the chapters where Franny meets renowned novelist Leon Posen after she drops out of law school and when Albie, the baby of the family, learns about the family’s past are particularly good. I am keen to read Patchett’s latest novel ‘The Dutch House’ and her non-fiction collection ‘This is the Story of a Happy Marriage’.