‘A Mad and Wonderful Thing’ by Mark Mulholland or is all fair in love and war?

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I came to this novel full of curiosity and a sense of longing, having read the blurb and seeing that it featured a young and bookish Irish man, full of passion yet hiding a dark other side in which he masquerades as an IRA sniper. While such contrasts of course are of great interest to me as a reader (I am fascinated by what motivates people and how they end up where they do) it was actually the tentative glimpse towards  my long dead grandfather, that certain aspects of this novel seemed to cover that really intrigued me. While I am not suggesting he was an IRA sniper, I do know that he was a very quiet, bookish man who passed away when my mother was a young girl- thus remaining mysterious and enigmatic as we try to piece together our understanding of a man that died over 50 years ago. Clearly he was An Irish emigre, and clearly he came from an era in which the troubles Ireland have faced must have influenced his decision to move to the UK? What did he experience? What were his opinions? While I know that a book cannot possibly speak for a person, I do know that they can offer snap shots and pointers: something I was interested to explore in this novel. This, then was the particular baggage that I brought to the reading of this text.

And what a text! It is complex and rich. It explores uncomfortable questions and leaves you to examine all of the viewpoints it puts forth; to reach your own conclusions about the decisions that Johnny Connolly makes and the representation they put forth regarding Irish troubles (and really the troubles that occupation and war bring in any nation). This novel is full of scars, that are ripped wide open so that you may explore their painful and horrifying realities: no matter how uncomfortable. Although the subject matter differs wildly, to Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, it shares it’s clever approach to its dark subject matter in that it places judgement firmly within the readers hands. That and that it is a love story (Johnny and Cora, and towards Ireland). This is a brave and clever choice, something that allows us to move beyond black and white into the complexities of grey. If we are to understand and learn from Johnny’s experiences (or indeed from any young, angry person that wishes to avenge oppression, brutality or occupation) then we must pay close attention. Though the reasoning may differ, the motivations must have a universality to them.

Interestingly, Mulholland does have the foresight to locate Johnny’s personal struggles against historic ones- namely Nazi Germany. How could such horrors happen?  Ask the teachers, doctors, solicitors etc. Indeed, it is his old teacher that I remain most horrified with- responsible for recruiting and corrupting a vulnerable and impressionable 12 year old boy. Makes you really think about similar corruptions going on in other struggles and how the weak manipulate those who have not yet matured and lack true insight into carrying out their bidding, without true understanding of consequences.

There are many bleak moments in this novel, they come early and come fast- unlike ‘One Day’ by Nicholls our trauma at tragedy is just the beginning. Instead we get to truly see what happens next and how much further Johnny can spiral. It is an emotional, gut wrenching read. The love he feels for Cora and for his Ireland are palpable. You can feel them too, in all their glory. I feel that this novel helped me understand the beauty of this country, so linked to me yet not fully understood. I also got to understand the complexities of Johnny’s choices- alarmingly, I found that I really liked him and could perhaps negate some of the horrific violence he propagates. Johnny is kind to his family, so he can’t be a bad person. Yet he does bad things. Perhaps this was the writers point. This is how easily people turn a blind eye. It certainly made me sit up and think more deeply and realise that people are as complex as their reasoning is illogical, at times.

To me, though, the biggest gift of this novel was in both the beauty of its crafting and it’s ability to weave metaphors throughout the heart of this story (and heart is what it all boils down to). It is worth reading just for the mountain metaphor alone, in the great wisdom it imparts. We all begin at the bottom, and we must climb its arduous path overcoming obstacle, despite not knowing what we may reach. We must find ropes (or guiding lights) in the form of inspiring/ encouraging people or ideas. We must always do everything with heart. In this way we can see Johnny’s struggles as representing Ireland’s struggles and you hope that it has reached the top of the mountain (and that others struggling may do so too).

So while I sought some understanding of my grandfather, instead I gained some understanding of how and why people struggle with dark decisions. How they can justify violence, in the name of some warring cause. While it may not be my path, it is a path that keeps being trodden. It is a complex one that involves interplay between different sides. It is not black (like the portentous fox that foreshadows the first trouble) or white, but complex grey. So thank you, Mark Mulholland, for tackling such an important subject and giving me pause. I hope that others are given pause, too and instead consider how such a situation/ action is born before reducing it into unhelpful judgements. If they only realised, novels can hold the key to unlocking deeper understanding of such matters.

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