I had such high hopes for this book. I am a sucker for Irish novels particularly those that deal with The Troubles and this book landed in my hands with a comparison to my all-time favourite book A Star a Called Henry. It also landed with a letter from Henry Rosenbloom from Scribe who has published some seriously good books over the years including Shantaram and Norwegian By Night.
The novel is set in early 1990s Ireland and is about Johnny Donnelly. He is a passionate young man. He is passionate about life, books, women and his country. We meet Johnny as he and the beautiful Cora Fannery are falling in love. But Johnny is keeping a secret from Cora and his friends and family. He is a sniper for the IRA.
Most novels concerning the “modern” Troubles in Ireland (post-1970s) are set in Northern Ireland and I found it really interesting that this book was set over the border in the Republic of Ireland. I also loved the way the author showed how a young boy/man’s idealism can set him on a path, rightly or wrongly.
But there was something missing in this book. Normally a great book grabs me straight away and I was never really sure about this book. At times I glimpsed this book’s greatness but then it would lose me. The novel is very philosophical at times and is never predictable but Johnny never quite wins me over like he seems to every character he meets in the book. His charisma didn’t come off the page like say Roddy Doyle’s Henry Smart.
One of the elements I found really missing was the use of humour. The Irish novels I love always manage to balance out the dark and depressing with great humour. And while there are some funny scenes and observations they aren’t sustaining.
I loved the idea of a secret life as a sniper but we didn’t get to see enough of this. There are so many stories now where a serial killer or murderer is leading a double life with a family and I thought there was great potential to explorer this double life being something patriotic rather than sadistic. When we got to this secret life I really thought everything was going to pull together especially when Johnny confronts a British informer. Instead the book goes Forest Gump and the ending was extremely unsatisfactory.
This is by no means a bad book. I think this will find an audience and Mark Mullholland is a very good writer. This is definitely a case where my expectations got built too high and I wish I could re-read the book with a blank slate.
A MAD AND WONDERFUL THING is published in March 2014 by Scribe.