LitStack Review: The Little Red Chairs by Edna O’Brien

by Sharon Browning

The Little Red Chairs
Edna O’Brien
Little, Brown and Company
Release Date:  March 29, 2016
ISBN 978-0-316-37823-9

On April 6, 1992, a siege began in Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which lasted over three and half years. Government forces were outgunned by heavily armed Bosnian Serbs who held the heights around the city. Three hundred shells fell on the city each day, and snipers targeted civilians behind the front lines. Over 11,000 people were killed during the siege, hundreds of whom were children.

In 2012, the Sarajevo Red Line commemorated the 20 year anniversary of the Siege of Sarajevo. To honor the fallen, 11,541 empty red chairs were set up along Sarajevo’s main thoroughfare, including 643 little chairs representing children who died during the siege.

Radovan Karadžić served as the President of Republika Srpska (Serb Republic) during the Bosnian War. Known as the “Butcher of Bosnia”, he was indicted for inciting genocide in 1995 and went into hiding, evading arrest until 2008. His trial dragged on for many years, but in 2016 he was found guilty of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity (for more than just the atrocities of the Siege of Sarajevo), and was sentenced to 40 years imprisonment.

This is the real life backdrop to Edna O’Brien’s fictional The Little Red Chairs.

In the small Irish town of Cloonoila, a stranger arrives. He is exotic, well mannered and knowledgeable; his white hair and beard giving him a sense of the spiritual. He is a holistic healer, he says, and a poet, and claims he was compelled to travel to Ireland in a dream. After a time he opens a holistic practice in town, and even though the residents are wary at first, curiosity gets the better of them (especially the women) and soon he is accepted into their daily lives.

Lovely Fidelma McBride is restless; content in her marriage but not in her life, she chafes at the loss of the fashion shop that gave her purpose. She yearns to have a child believing that motherhood would be the answer to her disquiet, but has been unable to conceive with her husband – so her imagination wanders to the mysterious newcomer. She begins to subtly (and not so subtly) woo Vlad; initially he resists, but eventually agrees to get her with child. She speaks of desire; he, of science.

We as readers learn early on that there is more to Vlad than what meets the eye; that there is something evil in him, but to the townspeople and to Fidelma he is able to work wonders with his holistic techniques, and he appears worldly and wise. Still, the closer Fidelma gets to him, the more she senses danger clinging to him. At first it seems exciting, but then one ordinary morning everything goes wrong and Fidelma must live with decisions made without understanding how dangerous tangling her life with Vlad’s would be.

The Little Red Chairs is both a beautiful and harrowing tale of ordinary lives caught up in the ever widening net of lies, mankind’s conflicts and the unconcerned fallout of a thirst for power. Starting with Fidelma and broadening to those she meets when she travels from Cloonoila to London and then the Hague, this novel goes beyond the trendy catchphrase of “collateral damage” and narrates not only the trauma of victims, but also illustrates how withdrawing, even as a defense mechanism, can allow wounds to fester.

Through a lyrical and at times an elegant but also uncompromising voice, Edna O’Brien tells Fidelma’s tale via a larger canvas of people and experiences, from the gentle naïveté of her fellow townsfolk to families torn asunder by war to immigrants struggling to overcome poverty and isolation. Some of the narrative is very hard to read, but Ms. O’Brien deftly shares only enough to relate the shock and pain and despair without lingering on sensationalized detail or sentimentality, choosing her words careful and with great impact. If anything, her prose was a bit too grey, there is very little color to the story, either soft-hued or vibrant, that isn’t muted. Still, even if the palette of her prose is narrow, within those confines there is an infinite variety of gradation, and in the end, a whisper of possible redemption.

~ Sharon Browning

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