Lately in Literature: Ronan Hession’s ‘Panenka’ is a Week 5 pick-me-up novella

May 1, 2023, 10:04 p.m.

Welcome to “Lately in Literature with Leyla.” I will be reviewing new book releases to keep you updated on some of the best contemporary fiction. Join me to pick up your next read!

Sometimes, when it’s late and you’ve got nothing better to do, you recount an embarrassing moment or a stupid decision and it haunts you for the rest of the night. For the hero in “Panenka” — the latest novel from Irish musician and author Ronan Hession — a simple decision haunts him for all of his life. In dwelling upon a past mistake, he has a fallout with his family, becomes a stranger to his own town and loses any trace of life satisfaction.

As a young football player in Seneca FC and a new dad, Joseph’s life seems cheery. Sure, he isn’t playing for the best team and he never gets to take the penalty kick amid the more seasoned senior players, but there’s not much else to upset him. 

One fateful day, he does get to take the penalty — only to shoot the ball right into the arms of the goalkeeper, who doesn’t even have to bother to move. From then on, Seneca never wins again. The town carries a gloomy mood. And Joseph, who is given the nickname Panenka, becomes the disappointment of the same townspeople who used to treat his team with a cozy sense of hometown adoration.

“It’s overwhelming. When you’re consumed with the effort of processing internal pain, it becomes impossible to do anything else,” expresses Panenka. The man finds that he no longer enjoys the place he used to call home. He chooses to keep to himself, shoveling the pain and regret away until it all becomes too much to bottle up.

The novel explores Panenka’s life years after his fateful miss, living with his daughter, Marie-Thérèse, and grandson, Arthur. As Marie-Thérèse tries to reconcile the relationship with her reclused father, Panenka tries to bond with his grandson. All the while, he is enduring an unnamed illness that causes him excruciating headaches.

Panenka stands out because it makes a protagonist from an old and somewhat grumpy man. It tells everyday stories of ordinary households. But it also shows the readers what lies under the surface of this unlikely hero’s ordinary life. The unlikeable character and simple plotlines serve as reminders for self-appreciation and forgiveness. 

“I prefer to be a stranger among strangers. It gives me the superpower of invisibility,” says Panenka, noting how his remorse after the penalty shot caused years of internal punishment, giving way to a self-loathing so deep that he desires to shun himself from society. However, seeing his daughter’s efforts to bond and noting his declining health, Panenka finally realizes that he can no longer “retreat like a woodland animal.” 

It’s not a dreary atmosphere that Hession aims to convey through this short novel. In contrast, his characters stand out for their love for one another; the book explores the second chances that are enabled by that powerful sensation. 

Just as the people of Seneca stay loyal to a football club that hasn’t won any titles in decades, Hession’s characters carry an imperishable love for one another. Whether it’s Marie-Thérèse’s relationship with her best friend or Panenka’s with his grandson, the novel showcases the love all of its characters are capable of having for someone else, even if they don’t have it for themselves yet.

Later on in the novel, Panenka meets a woman named Esther, who likes gazing around the town, admiring each of its corners. “I need it. I like absorbing the noise and the light and the faces. I photosynthesize it all. It restores my energy after the day. Don’t you like to connect with people?” she questions.

Although both Esther and Panenka are walking the same street, their points of view are entirely different. Eventually, with her presence, Panenka allows himself to notice the beauty he withheld from his mind for decades and practice love and adoration again.

If you need a pick-me-up for Week 5, definitely give Panenka a chance as the novel is a beautiful reminder of the importance of self-forgiveness. It’ll also encourage you to take the scenic route to class and perhaps kick a few footballs in the sun-kissed fields.

Editor’s Note: This article is a review and includes subjective thoughts, opinions and critiques.

Leyla Yilmaz '25 is the vol. 264 Reads desk editor for the Arts & Life section. She is from Istanbul, Turkey and a prospective Biology major who enjoys frequent trips to the bookstore and collecting cacti. Contact the Daily's Arts & Life section at arts ‘at’

Login or create an account