The Little Red Chairs by Edna O’Brien

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Reviewed by Karen Heenan-Davies

When Edna O’Brien released her memoir Country Girl in 2012, there was intense speculation that this would be her swansong. She is after all in her eighties. But those pundits were wrong. Blissfully so. Anyone who had written her off should now be eating their quill pens in shame. Edna is not only back with her first novel in ten years, she has delivered a storming tale that dares to tackle one of the big moral issues of our times while never losing sight of the small oddities of life in her native Ireland.

Little Red Chairs takes its title from a tableau of 11,000 empty chairs created in Sarajevo to commemorate victims of the siege by Bosnian Serbs in early 1990s. It’s an apt title for a novel that deals with the arrival of a fugitive war criminal in Cloonoila, a backwater village on the west coast of Ireland. ‘Doctor Vlad’ intends to set up in business as a holistic healer and sex therapist, He quickly amends his plan; this is after all ultra conservative Catholic Ireland where no-one talks about sex openly, and certainly not to a stranger. The community is still suspicious. Who is this exotic looking man who strides the countryside ‘in a long black smock with his white beard and white hair tied up in a top-knot’, muttering of herbs and tinctures and reciting Latin verses? But gradually they fall under his spell, helped enormously by the first hand report from an elderly nun who throws caution to the wind to try out a hot stone massage.

One woman in particular is drawn to the magnetism of this man. Lonely, loveless, childless draper’s wife Fidelma McBride sees Vlad as the solution to her unhappiness. But the consequences of her desperate infatuation are unimaginably horrific. Many reviewers have challenged O’Brien’s decision to include a detailed scene of violation involving Fidelma, feeling it was too graphic. As uncomfortable as this is to read, it’s a pivotal moment in the plot without which much of what follows would lose its meaning. To say more about what happens would spoil the experience for other readers. Suffice it to say the outcome is that Fidelma escapes her homeland to seek oblivion in London among the city’s exploited migrant workers; a world that consists of ‘nobodies, mere numbers . . . the hunted, the haunted, the raped, the defeated, the mutilated, the banished.’ She can never forget what happened but when Vlad is eventually caught and put on trial at the Hague for genocide, she looks for some sign of remorse that might – just might – help her deal with the past.

O’Brien’s pace through a multitude of settings – rural Ireland, central London, the Balkans – never dips, while the authenticity never falters. Little escapes her attention, from the pointless tedious form-filling imposed on those who need charitable help to the list of herbs Dr Vlad collects to make his healing medicines: hawthorn for the heart, willow for the gall bladder, lime flower for women experiencing the menopause. In classic O’Brien style the characters who make up the community of Cloonoila are so rounded, so real you feel you could stretch out a hand to touch them. But this is a novel in which O’Brien gives voice to the wretched of the world, the dispossessed, the traumatised, who share their hellish experiences while working as cleaners and hotel kitchen staff.

Throughout the book one figure stands out: Doctor Vlad – a powerfully magnetic man variously compared to Romulus, Vlad the Impaler, Rasputin and Dr Faustus. To the community of Cloonoila he is the man who takes their children on nature walks and excursions to pick mushrooms and then joins them at the book club meeting. But in the Balkans, he is known as the Beast of Bosnia, a character modelled on the real life war crime fugitive Radovan Karadzic. O’Brien makes him alternatively angry and cunning, reasonable and angry, cold yet charismatic. It’s as engrossing a portrait of evil as it’s possible to find.

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Karen blogs at Bookertalk.

Edna O’Brien, Little Red Chairs (Faber & Faber, 2015) 978-0571316281, 320 pp. hardback.

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