Fiction – hardcover; Faber & Faber; 320 pages; 2015. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.
The Little Red Chairs by Edna O’Brien is the Irish writer’s first novel in 10 years. (She’s written a memoir and a collection of short stories in the intervening years.) The book is about war crimes, retribution and justice. Many of the reviews in the mainstream press are billing it as her masterpiece. I beg to differ.
A war criminal on the run
The book’s title refers to the 11,541 red chairs that were put out on the Serajevo high street to mark the 20th anniversary of the start of the Siege of Sarajevo by Bosnian Serb forces. The chairs represented the number of people killed during the siege, which lasted almost four years. More than 600 of those chairs represented the number of children that died.
O’Brien’s novel looks at the long-lasting impact of that siege — and war in general — and focuses on a fictionalised war criminal from Montenegro (said to be loosely based on Radovan Karadzic) who goes in to hiding in a little Irish village. Here, Dr Vlad sets up a clinic as an alternative healer and sex therapist, thereby creating a bit of a stir with the locals, many of whom regard him as a hippy and a charlatan. But he settles in and wins over his harshest critics, including Fidelma McBride, a woman caught up in a sexless marriage, who has an affair with him.
Their relationship, which is tenderly drawn, becomes the undoing of Fidelma, when Dr Vlad is caught and exposed as a war criminal.
The book is divided into three parts: the first sets the scene through the eyes of numerous small town characters to show how Dr Vlad became a member of the community and hoodwinked them all; the second tells of Fidelma’s new life in London, where she is a member of the underclass struggling to come to terms with her past; and the third reveals how she reconciles her “evil ways” by going to The Hague to witness Dr Vlad’s war crime trial.
Each part is different in style, tone and point of view from the one that went before, which can be slightly disorienting and jarring to the reader.
Yet, as a whole, the novel is very easy to read and O’Brien’s often breathless, occasionally convoluted prose contains some quite beautiful descriptions and turns of phrase. Here are some of my favourite examples:
‘Ah now,’ she said, blushing fiercely, the colour running up and down her neck in ripples, as if cochineal was trickling through her.
The surfers were watching for their moment, to disappear, to be lost from sight and then to reappear, like marionettes, arms, legs, torsos, flying and flailing, as they reached for their surfboards. In the brief lull, white foam carried on into the rocky shore, where it spent itself and went back out, leaving behind lazy pools and patterns, so that the foreshore seemed as if tubs of suds had been emptied into it.
Branches of the wisteria that climbed up the porch were ashen, like old bones, clawing their way. The lawn there was an unblemished cape of frost.
But the book is also littered with (unnecessary) exposition: long paragraphs of research that feel shoehorned in and add nothing to the story, such as this:
When they entered the Thames estuary, he said what a famous shipping route it had been, tankers and carriers from all over the world and how Francis Drake in 1577, with his guns and his one hundred and sixty-four men, set out for South America, at the behest of the Queen, to do maximum damage to Spanish galleons on which she wished to be avenged.
A novel about pertinent issues
That said, I did very much enjoy The Little Red Chairs. It is a strong novel about important issues — immigration, refugees, war and the impact of violence on women — and written in O’Brien’s distinctively beautiful prose. Even though its focus is largely on the aftermath of the Bosnian war, the issues raised in it, about violence, post-traumatic stress disorder, seeking asylum and finding a new place to call home, are timely and pertinent today, and all are expertly and sensitively handled by the author.
But it’s patchy and not the crowning pinnacle of her long and varied career as some might suggest. But that’s not to say that it isn’t worth reading: even a less-than-perfect novel by a writer of this stature is far better, and more deserving of praise, than a lot of the stuff that gets all the buzz-worthy (social media) attention these days.
Finally, this interview with O’Brien about the book — screened on Channel 4 News last week — is worth watching: