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

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Edna O’Brien—now 85, for more than 50 years a prolific writer of fiction and nonfiction—took ten years to write The Little Red Chairs, and it’s easy to see why. The novel aspires to something far deeper than a mere story about contemporary life. It aspires to greatness.  With its opening quotation from The Epic of Gilgamesh—perhaps civilization’s oldest written tale—and a literary style that is powerful, timeless, and, yes, epic, O’Brien plunges us into the land of myth and fairy tale, into the battle between good and evil that is at the heart of human history and human destiny. This is not a novel for the faint of heart.

A stranger, “bearded and in a long dark cloak and white gloves,” mysteriously appears in the rural Irish village of Cloonoila. Wandering into the local pub, he introduces himself as Dr. Vladimir Dragon (Dragon?): Healer and Sex Therapist.  Within months, he mesmerizes Cloonoila’s citizens with his East-West medicinal/spiritual knowledge and boatloads of charm.

O’Brien introduces us to a panoply of stock Irish characters: the priest, the nun, the pub owner, the single woman (“God I could do with a fella”), the draper’s wife.  At first, the accent is on humor. Father Damien gets Vlad to replace “Healer and Sex Therapist” with “Holistic Healing” on his calling card; Sister Bonaventure enjoys Vlad’s first massage; and the town beauty, Fidelma (Fidelis?), a reader of Virgil and Shakespeare, is drawn to Vlad like an aspiring writer to a famous author.

In Part One, O’Brien has fun with—and makes fun of —her characters. There is a lyricism, compassion, and humor that is uniquely O’Brien’s, especially during an hilarious Book Club meeting that mixes high and low as if it were a comic opera.

But underneath the lightheartedness are deep chords of desire and death that gradually, then increasingly, overtake the story. Fidelma, 40ish, married to a man in his 60s, with two miscarriages behind her, yearns for a child and fixates on Vlad as the solution to her problem. She becomes the novel’s main character, though not always its chief narrator. O’Brien dispenses with traditional narrative rules as she switches from third to first person, then back again, and introduces characters, then drops them with ease and confidence, as if to say  “Be prepared for a rule-breaking piece of fiction,”  which is what she delivers, though not all at once. Hints of the horror to come are sprinkled throughout, as when Vlad says to Fidelma, “You see, there is deep inside man the instinct to kill just as there is deep inside woman the instinct to nurture.”

Readers know, given an introductory paragraph by O’Brien, that “the little red chairs” refers to an event that commemorated the twentieth anniversary of the start of the siege of Sarajevo by Bosnian Serbs, during which 11,541 red chairs were laid out in rows along the city’s main street, representing those killed during the 1,425 days of siege, including 643 small chairs representing the children killed. We also know, because of all the broad hints and quotations dropped, that Vlad is O’Brien’s version of Bosnian Serb war criminal Radovan Karadzic. Known as “the Beast of Bosnia,” he did, in fact, disappear into the mountains, hidden and protected by his people, and did pass himself off as some sort of New Age healer, until he was arrested, tried, and convicted in The Hague for the crime of genocide.

It’s inevitable, then, given the brutality and horror of the Bosnian war, that the novel slowly but inevitably moves from light to dark. But I have to say that I was totally unprepared for the savage brutality that is suddenly unleashed on Fidelma, and the succession of terrible tales that compose the second half of this novel.

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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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