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Book Review: ‘The Little Red Chairs,’ by Edna O’Brien

Part Two finds us in South London, where Fidelma has fled, rejected by her husband and community, penniless and homeless. We might as well be in another novel. Fidelma encounters—and wanders among— the world’s dispossessed, mainly women, often with fake identities and papers, who eke out a living, sharing rooms, beds, and sorrows with strangers, struggling to survive. We hear a series of terrible stories that reinforce O’Brien’s unsparing view of women as victims. In war and peace, it is women, above all, who are the most vulnerable to rape and torture and who, whether in London, Ireland, or Sarajevo, suffer the most. But Fidelma “as a survivor” comes to see that it is her duty to “help other survivors,” and becomes part of a Centre dedicated to make “victims become heroines.”   

In Part Three, Fidelma travels to The Hague to watch the trial of Vlad and, inevitably, to confront him in prison. He still thinks of himself as innocent of all charges. “If I am crazy, then patriotism itself is crazy,” he says. To which Fidelma ultimately replies, “I wish you were mad, but you are not mad . . . are one of Lucifer’s lying liars . . . a monster.” To my mind, this is the weakest part of the novel.

Despite stretches of gorgeous writing about nature, about love, about desire, this is a profoundly depressing book to read, even if, in the end, it radiates with forgiveness and redemption.

Philip Roth has called this novel O’Brien’s “masterpiece.”  I consider it a magisterial and gripping—though flawed—attempt to wrestle with profound moral issues, especially the twin horrors of religion and nationalism. I suspect, despite its flaws, The Little Red Chairs will be read and debated around the world for decades to come.

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  • Carol Arrington June 7, 2016 at 1:32 pm

    I read ‘The Little Red Chairs’ by Edna O’Brien just a few weeks ago.
    This review expresses much of what I felt. The novel was enjoyable and beautifully written in the beginning but it was inevitable that things would change. I too found the third part weak in comparison. A flawed but beautiful read.

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