Wednesday 21 February 2018

Books: Tale of sensitive sniper in the IRA is off target

Book review: A Mad And Wonderful Thing, Mark Mulholland

A Mad and Wonderful Thing by Mark Mulholland
A Mad and Wonderful Thing by Mark Mulholland
Mark Mulholland

Eilis O'Hanlon

The best way to approach a book is without expectation. That way, you're never disappointed when it fails to live up to the hype. Sadly, that's not how modern publishing works. Every new novel is garlanded with extravagant praise from publishers and publicists.

Mark Mulholland's debut effort is a case in point. Here's a new novel from an Irish writer, based in France, about a young man growing up and falling in love in a border town who also happens to be a secret IRA sniper.

Advance copies were sent out with the following recommendation: "I have never, as an editor and publisher, come across a debut novel that has excited me so much as the one you now hold in your hand ... This novel will defy your expectations and will entrance you with the scope of its vision and beauty of its language."

That's some eulogy. Before even beginning page one, therefore, the dial on the anticipation-o-meter had already shot up to 11.

Any novel would struggle not to fall short after such an introduction and this one simply isn't substantial enough to keep its end of that bargain.

Johnny Donnelly is a textbook example of a familiar literary archetype, the sensitive gunman. He quotes Plato. He organises cello recitals for a colleague on his retirement.

His former teacher, who also happens to be his IRA handler, tells Johnny he was his finest pupil in 40 years, "the one light in the dark".

Well, of course he was.

Johnny also appears to be sexually irresistible to every woman in Ireland, who all fling themselves at his brooding body. He is, in short, an adolescent male fantasy, whose love for Cora, presented here as if it was so intense it makes Romeo and Juliet look like a passing infatuation, never feels real.

Inevitably, there is tragedy. This is a Troubles novel, after all. The apparent intention, as always in such fiction, is to explore that perennial question: why do good men do bad things? But it doesn't really. There are a few perfunctory discussions of the justification for violence, but they don't add up to anything approaching the philosophical examination of recent Irish history, which Mulholland appears to believe them to be.

The final few chapters, as Johnny undergoes an implausible semi-epiphany and sets out to do the right thing, are quite tense, but by then it's too late.

Worse, the good work is undone by a final chapter, which has to be one of the most ludicrous ever committed to print in a supposedly serious novel.

No spoilers, but what were Mulholland and his editors thinking?

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