The Little Red Chairs by Edna O’Brien
What if a war criminal appeared in your town and passed himself off as a poet and holistic healer? What if your town was a small isolated place and the man is handsome in a brooding mysterious way? It could happen that he would be secretly sought after by women with private troubles and conned into trusting him to the point of intimacy. So does the incredible Edna O’Brien imagine how this would play out.
Fifty-six years after The Country Girls was published, this is not quite the same Edna O’Brien. She is
still mining the plight of the Irish woman but that sequestered innocence has been invaded by ever more wars, economic upheaval, and ethnic struggle. In her current alternate history,
The Butcher of Bosnia, in disguise, enters the Irish town of Cloonoila on a winter evening and trailing after him are the evils of one of the worst European conflicts of the 20th century. The book is prefaced by the following epigraph:
“On the 6th of April 2012, to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the start of the siege of Sarajevo by Bosnian Serb forces, 11,541 red chairs were laid out in rows along the 800 meters of the Sarajevo high street. One empty chair for every Sarajevan killed during the 1,425 days of siege. Six hundred and forty-three small chairs represented the children killed by snipers and the heavy artillery fired from the surrounding mountains.”
Despite having read the above, I went into the novel as innocently as one of those early country girls and almost as ignorantly as an American woman who avoids reading the news and reads novels instead. Perhaps that was the best state in which to be for a first read, because I was instantly under the spell of O’Brien’s prose.
“The town takes its name from the river. The current, swift and dangerous, surges with a manic glee, chunks of wood and logs of ice borne along in its trail. In the small sidings where the water is trapped, stones, blue, black and purple, shine up out of the river bed, perfectly smoothed and rounded and it is as though seeing a clutch of good-sized eggs in a bucket of water. The noise is deafening…“
He stays by the water’s edge, apparently mesmerized by it.
“Bearded and in a long dark coat and white gloves, he stands on the narrow bridge, looks down at the roaring current, then looks around, seemingly a little lost, his presence the single curiosity in the monotony of a winter evening in a freezing backwater that passes for a town and is named Cloonoila.”
Within days the stranger, who calls himself Dr Vladimir Dragan, has met with and overcome suspicion and won over some admirers, including a nun, a bartender, and several ladies. He gives treatments in his clinic and talks at the school. He brings glamour and newness and a bit of the feeling of danger to the dull winter town.
No one comes to actual harm except Fidelma McBride, whose beauty and worldliness is sure to lead to trouble. She is unhappily married to a much older man, childless, and bored, having lost her boutique in the crash. The doctor becomes her obsession and she lures him into an affair. But Dragan is discovered, captured and whisked away. After a scene of stunning violence, Fidelma is left shamed and shunned by the community and her husband. The final sections of the novel are a classic tale of the ravages of sin, the search for redemption, and the atonement.
Fidelma moves to London and lives among refugees and undocumented immigrants, then moves on to The Hague where she attends Dragan’s trial before the United Nations Tribunal. Interwoven with what could be a dark mystery or even a political thriller is this woman’s journey from complicity with evil through guilt to her ultimate understanding of the dangers of innocence.
O’Brien calls on the classic legends, tales of innocence lost and evil triumphing, parables of justice and punishment, all from the viewpoint of women ravaged, deprived of home and family, and drowning in grief. Not a moment of melodrama. Just a piercing examination of the travails brought down on women in times of evil getting the upper hand.
When The Little Red Chairs was published in Great Britain last October, the long, drawn out trial of Radovan Karadzic, the actual Butcher of Bosnia, was still ongoing. Just five days before the book’s publication in the United States, the United Nations Tribunal in The Hague convicted him of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. I did not know that piece of news until I began preparing my review. The chilling thought comes to me. Could this masterpiece by a writer of fiction, an Irish female novelist, have made a difference in the judgement of the Tribunal?