Ian Colford’s Reviews > The Little Red Chairs
The Little Red Chairs by Edna O'Brien
Read in September 2018
4 of 5 stars
For the title of her 18th novel, The Little Red Chairs, Edna O’Brien makes use of an emotionally devastating image: at a memorial event held in 2012 and known as the Sarajevo Red Line, 11,541 empty red chairs were arranged on the main street in Sarajevo to commemorate the 11,541 people killed during the 1,425 days of the Siege of Sarajevo (1992-1996), 643 of which were small chairs to honour the victims who were children. In the novel, a man of Eastern European origin calling himself Vladimir Dragan turns up in a small village in the west of Ireland. Dragan represents something of a conundrum for the inhabitants of Cloonoila, who never totally warm up to him but nonetheless find him fascinating and alluring. Undaunted by the villagers’ suspicions, he fashions himself as Dr. Vlad the naturopath, and begins to practice his cryptic healing arts on some of the less timid of the locals. Vlad, with his veneer of esoteric wisdom, charismatic presence, commanding bearing and resonant voice, is of particular interest to the women. To vulnerable, emotionally starved, 40-year-old Fidelma, who has suffered two miscarriages and is married to a man many years her senior, Vlad comes to represent something of a last hope. Fidelma is desperate for a child, and with pleas and promises persuades him to plant the seed. Then the truth comes out. Vlad’s actual identity is exposed, and he is apprehended and packed off to the War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague to answer for atrocities perpetrated during the Bosnian War. In the second half of the novel, Fidelma, disgraced and alone, leaves Ireland to pick up the pieces of her life in London, where she works a series of menial jobs and encounters other refugees and exiles fleeing persecution, war and famine, people trying to recover from losses and suffering hardships every bit as distressing as her own. Coming from an author who has nothing left to prove, The Little Red Chairs offers a bleak perspective on the modern world. It is an honest and uncompromising work of political fiction that stares murderous prejudice and human brutality squarely in the face. Paradoxically, it is also a work of great beauty. Throughout, O’Brien’s prose, as we would expect, is supple, memorable, richly observant, and crammed with apt metaphors and striking images. And though this is without a doubt a relentlessly grim and at times gut-wrenching novel—to the point that some readers may have difficulty with the violence depicted in its pages—there is also no question that The Little Red Chairs is the work of an author whose storytelling powers, fifty years into her career, show no sign of diminishing.