Panenka by Rónán Hession


Recently I read a book that extolled the virtues of cricket; this one centers on a love/hate thing with soccer, or football, as they call it in Ireland. First, I learned that a Panenka is a surprise move, kicking the ball directly in the middle of the goal in a shootout kick with the hope that the goalie will leap to one side or the other to block the ball. It is named for Antonin Panenka, a Czech player who did it successfully in 1976 in a game against West Germany. Yes, you can see it on YouTube.

In this case during the last game of the season of the local football club a player named Joseph tried a Panenka and not only did the ball hit the goalie directly in the chest, but Joseph was not to have taken the shot at all. This catastrophic action sent the team into a decades-long downturn, Joseph became known as Panenka, and he fell into a depression.

As we begin the story in the present, his daughter Marie-Thérèse and her seven-year-old son Arthur have been living with Panenka, in an amiable arrangement. The hard-working and efficient Marie-Thérèse has separated from Vincent; he owns a bar where Panenka and a small group gather and are cranky together often.

The plot is pretty low key, well, hardly qualifies as plot. The characters do have experiences at this juncture that cause them to become introspective. They have conversations they should have had decades earlier. One day Panenka passes up his usual barbershop and drops into a new shop that has a woman barber. He gets in line, then lets everyone go in front of him until there’s no one left. Unused to such a delicate touch, tears escape Panenka’s eyes as Esther cuts his hair. She makes tea for him and shows him kindness. The two become friends, each recognizing the other’s pain. At last here is someone who knows him as Joseph.

Though Panenka is seriously ill, Marie-Thérèse is thinking of moving away, and Vincent doesn’t want the marriage to end, the unreasonably upbeat ending was welcome.

This is the second book I’ve read by Rónán Hession. I loved this one too and I’m happy he has a new one coming out in May.

Rónán Hession, Panenka, Bluemoose Books, 2021, 175 pages (I read the kindle version).

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