Once censored in native Ireland, Edna O’Brien’s novels are brutal and graphic, depicting the harsh, reality of Irish rural and religious life, and The Little Red Chairs is certainly no exception to this reputation. Edna O’Brien’s novel, blatantly inspired by the Beast of Bosnia, Radovan Karadzic timely arrived just as he had finally been sentenced to forty years in prison for genocide, but does not stop short on the Eastern European atrocities, in true O’Brien style.
Vlad, an Eastern European enigma, veiled as a healer, settles in a small Irish village where the locals fall for his charismatic ways. One woman, Fidelma McBride, so enraptured by his charms, begs him for a child. Her world comes to pieces when Vlad is arrested, and his identity as a war criminal is revealed, and he is openly disgraced. Disgraced, Fidelma escapes to England and seeks work among the other migrants exiled by wars and persecution. But it is not until she confronts Vlad at the tribunal in The Hague, that her journey, both emotional and physical, reaches its peak.
The Little Red Chairs is a novel that pulls apart the war’s scars, forcing us to feel the lasting, outlying mutilation by Karadzic through the character, Fidelma. And even the title of the novel itself resonates deeply, as in 2012, on the 20th anniversary of the Siege, a theatre company filled the centre of that town with 11,541 red chairs to commemorate the lives of the victims. More than six hundred of those chairs were little ones representing the children who had been killed.
Unsentimental and transcendent, O’Brien says it as it is, with the same blunt brushstrokes that saw her censored in the sixties. However, she does throw a lilting lyrical filter to her style, which has that effect of detaching the reader from the tragic world evoked. However, there is no discerning from the fact that she goes into great detail to deliver one of the most horrendously graphic violent scenes against women, one that will cause most to shudder and likely turn away from the book.
O’Brien once again rips apart this notion of a cosy Ireland a depiction of reality ripped from headlines. Stunning lyrical writing, with a confident pen, O’Brien’s seventeenth book highlights a writer comfortable in her style with no concern for stepping on toes.
The Little Red Chairs was published by Faber & Faber in 2015.