A Mad and Wonderful Thing by Mark Mulholland

Review published on June 27, 2016.

Johnny Donnelly lives in a town on the Irish border during the 1990s. He leads a double life as a charming, considerate, church-going young Irishman who is also an IRA sniper, killing in cold blood. Is Johnny a modern-day Cuchulainn fighting for his beloved country? Or just an angry young man who likes a fight?

There is some exquisite and lyrical writing in this book which takes the reader on a trip around Ireland as well as exploring Irish mythology but the book as a whole has a schizophrenic feel to it. While this mirrors the behaviour of the protagonist, I felt disappointed that the author failed to convince me that both aspects of Johnny were one and the same person, I couldn’t reconcile their differences. Or maybe it’s just that I didn’t like Johnny resorting to violence as a solution to all his issues?

Mulholland himself refers to the schizophrenia of the Irish as portrayed via the stereotype of Irish males being apparently so generous in the pub then violent at home. In Johnny we have two stereotypes of a young Irishman but as with every stereotype, the truth is more complex. No one could spend their lives being so dissonant without being troubled – and without a doubt, Johnny is a troubled man, albeit one who seems to lack a conscience.

This is a novel of contradictions – a parallel of Ireland itself with Johnny mirroring the landscape in being at once both extremely gentle and extremely violent. It’s not a comfortable read but that also is a reflection of Ireland, a country that isn’t at peace with itself. When I finished the book I felt emotionally drained – it packed such a powerful punch that I still can’t decide, days later, if I actually enjoyed it.

This is a first novel and it clearly demonstrates that Mark Mulholland fulfils another one of those Irish stereotypes – he really knows how to tell a story.

Clare Donaldson 4/5

A Mad and Wonderful Thing by Mark Mulholland
Scribe 9781925228564 pbk June 2016

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