A Mad and Wonderful Thing by Mark Mulholland

In brief: Johnny Donnelly’s a good Irish boy – he’s learning a trade, loves his country and has a beautiful sweetheart. Oh, and he’s also an IRA sniper.

The good: Very emotional in parts with a lot of Irish history.

The not-so-good: As you’d suspect, there’s quite a few deaths. One in particular really packs a punch.

Why I chose it: Sent to me by the kind folk at Scribe Publications – thank you!

Year: 2014

Pages: 283

Publisher: Scribe

Setting: Ireland and Europe

My rating: 7.5 out of 10

A mad and wonderful thing. Sounds the best of both worlds, doesn’t it? Something exciting, something to get your heart both racing and singing… This term can be used to summarise the protagonist in A Mad and Wonderful Thing, Johnny Donnelly – he’s full of wonderful ideas, love and kindness but he also hears and does some things that could be rightfully termed as completely mad.

The majority of the books I read based in Ireland are sweet and full of warmth – think Maeve Binchy, Cathy Kelly and Marian Keyes. They’ve lulled me into a sense of security that life in Ireland is green and full of wonderful family and friends. I’d almost entirely forgotten about the Troubles and IRA until Johnny Donnelly brought it up again. Mark Mulholland’s book brings to light not only what is good about Ireland, but its darker side, reminiscent of the Kevin and Sadie books by Joan Lingard that I read at school.

Johnny Donnelly is a character who has more layers than an onion. On the surface, he seems like a sweet Irish boy doing his apprenticeship and falling in love with Cora Flannery. His speech is full of Irish sayings and he’s incredibly knowledgeable about the history of Ireland. But then more is revealed about Johnny and it’s not so good. He’s a sniper in the IRA. He talks (and sees) his dead colleague. But when trouble hits close to home, Johnny goes off the rails a little bit more…and a bit more… Suddenly life isn’t so grand and there’s payback to be had…

What I enjoyed about A Mad and Wonderful Thing is the honesty that Johnny shares with the reader. His determination to take the English out of Ireland (one by one if necessary) is borne out of an incident as a child at the border with Northern Ireland. It’s a hatred that increases as time goes on and Johnny becomes more assured as a top sniper. However, when things fall apart – when love is lost and fatal mistakes are made, we can see Johnny’s thoughts unravelling. Although his family pleads with him not to hurt anyone, Johnny gets more trigger happy (and proves he’s a crack shot). Despite the anger burning in him, Johnny has a great capacity to love. When that love is lost, he fills the void with a number of liaisons that could be very good, if only he spent more time on them. It’s an interesting portrayal of a man who kills on the side.

Another thing I enjoyed about the book was the use of Irish history and stories. I loved the references to Cuchulainn’s Castle and Tir na nOg – Mulholland’s explanations were exceptionally well done and helped to set Ireland up as a special place in the book. Johnny and Cora’s knowledge of them gave a fairy tale like feel to their love and helped make Johnny seem more human in that he can love a woman as strongly as he loves his country (however misguided you may think his intentions are). I loved the juxtaposition of Johnny’s loves – it meant I couldn’t hate him as a character, only enjoy the ride with him. The book rides a wonderful mixture of emotions, sometimes you can feel on top of the world and others be sniffling at the sadness and injustice of life.

A solid debut by Mark Mulholland and a fantastically complex character created in Johnny Donnelly.

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One thought on “A Mad and Wonderful Thing by Mark Mulholland

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  1. Sounds good. I loved the Kevin and Sadie series when I was young too! As someone from Northern Ireland, I often shy away from ‘Troubles’ literature which probably means I’ve missed out on some good reads. This sounds a little reminiscent of Cal by Bernard MacLaverty which is a stunning book.

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