Sunday, February 5, 2017

The Little Red Chairs by Edna O'Brien

A charismatic war criminal hides in a little Irish village, unmooring a local woman

One day silver-haired brooding Dr. Vlad arrives to the village of Cloonoila.  He is a healer who gives erotic massages, scandalizing the local farmers.  An infertile woman, Fidelma, who owns the failing dress shop, is fascinated and goes to him for treatment.  In a crazy wonderful scene at an old hotel, he realigns her chakras and impregnates her.  However, Dr. Vlad is soon arrested as a war criminal, a pitiless general who oversaw the massacre of civilians in Bosnia.  His associates take revenge on Fidelma, and disgraced and traumatized, she moves to London, to live in the lowest caste of society, with the refugees.  The conclusion of the book finds her attending Dr. Vlad’s trial at The Hague.

I really enjoyed this book.  The rhythms of the sentences were simply beautiful, very often ending on a comic twist. The novel depicts, as so many of O’Brien’s previous novels have depicted, the residents of the Irish countryside, and then, in a stroke of genius, the story moves from the from the parochial confines of the village where everyone who is pretty much the same, to the uncaring streets of cosmopolitan London.  The nitty gritty of being penniless.  The fear and the homelessness.  Fidelma must put herself back together among refugees from many different cultures, no longer the affluent wife, but an alien scrubbing toilets and feeding dogs.

The title refers to an artistic exhibit that commemorated the twentieth anniversary of the siege of Sarajevo – 11,541 red chairs were set on the main street of Sarajevo to represent each citizen killed in the siege.  Six hundred and forty three red chairs were small and represented children.  The deaths of the children are never referred to or depicted in the book, apart from the sole paragraph on page one. 

The refugee women Fidelma encounters in London have some amazing narratives.  It shows how little you need of a plodding plot.  If only one third of the bridge is built, the reader can still get to the other side.  Edna O’Brien is a master writer.  It’s hard to believe she is 85 years old.  An amazing work.

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