A review by amortristis
Panenka, by Rónán Hession

reflective medium-paced


An easy read – I can see this being studied in secondary schools. But it’s also a difficult read because there isn’t a plot to follow and invest in, just a collection of emotionally stunted characters who refuse to communicate with one another. It’s frustrating. And it makes the talk-therapy dialogue seem even more out of place. There’s this air of reflectiveness that isn’t backed up with real introspection or character growth. It’s surface level sentimentality that goes nowhere. The titular Panenka and the other maladjusted men he’s friends with don’t ever learn to talk about their feelings or take responsibility for their actions, they just wait around until someone (almost always a woman) comes along to take care of them.

While I’m on the topic of sexism I have to talk about Vincent. He makes my skin crawl. There’s a scene towards the end of the book that I’ll outline here:
SpoilerMarie-Thérèse wants to break up with Vincent because she doesn’t love him any more. Vincent twists her words and reframes everything she says. He gets passive aggressive. He weaponsises their son, Arthur, using him to guilt trip her into staying. At the end of the book, Marie-Thérèse seems to have tricked herself into thinking she must still love Vincent, and they and their son go out for a meal like a Happy Family™.
To me, it’s horrific. But I don’t think it’s meant to be read that way. Sometimes it can be hard to tell what’s deliberately uncomfortable and what’s an unfortunate oversight on the author’s part. I suppose that’s what you get when you’re so preoccupied with the feelings of men that your female characters get utterly sidelined.

So what is Panenka? It’s a book full of self-pity and teenage middle-aged angst. It’s a book that wants to talk about men’s mental health but isn’t sure what to say. It’s a book I had high hopes for and was let down by. I’m not going to tell you not to read it, but man... it’s sticking with me for the wrong reasons.

CONTENT WARNINGS: chronic pain (migraines), cancer, depression, guilt, grief, abandonment, cheating, men being generally useless and/or nasty, sexism