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The Little Red Chairs by Edna O'Brien

The Little Red Chairs (2015)

by Edna O'Brien

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“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.”

This is a harrowing tale of a clash of cultures. It is written from the perspective of women in rural Ireland and Bosnia. O'Brien introduces a mesmerizing psychopath into a rural community in Ireland. Just like the mysterious stranger in Irish folk tales, the inhabitants fall under his spell. The tenets of the Catholic church plays a symbolic role and adds to the mystic nature of the story. A brutal, yet astonishing story that never lets the reader sink into despair. ( )
1 vote VivienneR | Nov 19, 2018 |
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 one cannot argue with the assertion that this is 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. ( )
  icolford | Sep 29, 2018 |
The Little Red Chairs by Edna O'Brien

Quite the harrowing book this is. Fidelma McBride, who lives with her husband Jack in a quiet town, Cloonoila, in western Ireland, meets a newcomer who has moved there from an Eastern European country. He's a healer, a shaman, an herbalist, a naturalist. He seems to be able to talk his way into and through this unfamiliar culture and community. And to thrive in it. He's charismatic, charming, attractive. Ultimately, Fidelma, wanting a child, feeling her biological clock winding down, attracting no succor from Jack (who is 20 years older than Fidelma), approaches the healer for surrogacy. No, no, no, he tells her, but eventually, he consents. In a bizarre tryst, Fidelma becomes pregnant. But Vlad then pushes her away.

One day, she discovers coarse graffiti painted on the sidewalk fronting her former boutique, which now is Dr. Vlad's clinic. She races off to find him, and when she does, he's angry, hostile to her but also cautionary. His car's been vandalized: tires cut, windows smashed. They run to the clinic.

     Where Wolves Fuck. He loomed over it, stared at it, then knelt and smelt it, as if he might guess the perpetrators.

     'It's someone who knows us,' she said.

     'You must deny everything, Fidelma.'

     'I can't...I live here.'

     'I thought I could trust you to be discreet,' he said with a cold contemptuousness.

     'I am discreet,' she said far too loudly, hating the hysteria in her voice, in her being, in her headscarf, in all of her.

     ...'Nothing happened ... no broken window ... no graffiti ... no rendezvous . . . nothing .. . ne ... ne . . . ništa'

     'But we're ...'

     'Start forgetting ... Fidelma.'

     'Forgetting what?'

     'Everything . . .' He was wiping his hands in a gesture of wip­ing her out. No more letters. No communication. No tears. She is a grown-up lady, she can look after herself.

     Then he was gone. Gone to where she would not find him. So this child, this wolf-child, was hers and hers alone to give birth to. Oh Jesus and Mary, she said... Start forgetting Fidelma. No ren­dezvous. No letters. No communication. Ništa.

And Vlad disappears. Gone from his clinic, gone from town. Vanished. About ten weeks later, he returns to take part in a poetry reading at the foot of Ben Bulben, an iconic mountain, something he promised to do. Everyone attending boards a bus, with Vlad settling into the seat behind the driver and losing himself in paperwork, editing. Further back sits Fidelma.

     …[She] wondered if, after his poetry reading, she would manage a word with him alone. She craved it. She knew that there was to be no further commu­nication and she accepted it, but she hoped, if only for the child's sake, he would be there, at the rim of her existence. She had not yet told Jack. How to tell him. What to tell him. When to tell him. These were the questions that assailed her hour after hour, as she faked good cheer at home…

She doesn't get the chance. The bus is flagged down by police, his passport is inspected. He's told, " 'I'm afraid we have to ask you to come to the station with us.' "

     'I'm afraid it's impossible because we are heading for a poetry recital,' he answered, quite nonchalant.

     'That will not be possible sir ... we are arresting you,' the sec­ond, more senior guard said.

     'My dear fellow, you must be mad ... arresting me ... you are chasing shadows,' Vlad said, still in total command of himself.

     'You have been living under a false name,' one said, and his colleague, who was not quite so bristling, said that they were just doing what they had been instructed to do, as he held up the arrest warrant for him to see.

Those remaining on the bus, which is everyone but Vlad, are dumbfounded.

     The last image they had was of his tall figure, unbowed but humiliated, starting down the steps of the bus and just as the sun had soaked into the young ash leaves, it now rasped on the bracelets of metal that bound his wrists.

     It happened so quickly, so 'low key' as they said, that they were well nigh lost for words. The fact that he had co-operated and hadn't tried to escape was surely a sign that it couldn't be too serious. Yet the mood had changed, everyone felt uneasy and the driver was sweating and cursing his bad luck. A day wasted. Fidelma regretted that she had jumped up and was touched for the first time with a fatalistic terror.

When they return home, they all watch televised news.

     On the television [some] spoke of him as the warrior poet, who had always had a mystical conviction of his role in history. He had risen from being an obscure doctor to the global notori­ety that he had always craved and was now on his way to the Tribunal in The Hague, to be indicted for crimes that included genocide, ethnic cleansing, massacres, tortures, detaining people in camps and displacing hundreds of thousands.

He's the "Beast of Bosnia," the leader of Serb forces that slaughtered thousands of Bosnians—men, women, and children— and that laid seige to Sarajevo. (Has no one heard of Vlad the Impaler? Read the WikiPedia entry here.) Jack knows now. So when three uncouth "bruisers" knock at the McBrides' door, Jack has no objection to their taking her away.

Oh, there's more. For Fidelma the ordeal is just beginning. Battered by the bruisers and left for dead, she's rescued and hospitalized. Rejected by her husband, she finds sanctuary with nuns. She goes to England, London, and struggles to find a place to stay, a job, and restoration of her psychological and spiritual well-being. And she seeks one final confrontation with Vlad.

A harrowing book yes, but well worth reading. I give it both thumbs up.
  weird_O | Sep 28, 2018 |
his is a really difficult book to review – on one hand it is an undoubtedly well written and touches deftly on any number of important issues but I also struggled at times with the style and did not warm to many of the characters as appalling as their circumstances were. Ultimately I think a book that I struggle to rate highly but am still glad that I read.

Plot in a Nutshell
A mysterious Eastern European healer Vladimir wanders into a small Irish village where he sets up home and a practice. A local woman Fidelma who is desperate for a child starts a relationship with him only to find that he is a wanted war criminal. After suffering terribly for her relationship with Vlad we follow Fidelma as she endeavours to start a new life in London before finally facing him once more at his trial in The Hague.

The book is written in significant number of short chapters many of which introduce characters and perspectives which are not revisited. Whilst reading I did not particularly enjoy this and was frustrated by the shifting points of view and upon completion I feel like the reader is left with any number of loose ends all of which could be jumping off points for other, possibly more compelling stories. Particularly confusing is the second third of the book which shows Fidelma starting her life in London amongst a cast of refugees and immigrants who as you might expect have sad and difficult back stories but are only loosely connected to the main narrative.

For much of the novel the writing is wonderfully descriptive – whether painting a strong visual of the landscape of rural Ireland or a pen portrait of any of the cast of ancillary characters nearly all of whom I believe I would recognise if I happened to meet. Where this falls down however is in the writing about the atrocities of the war where the writing is significantly more sparse. I can only assume given the quality of overall writing that this was a conscious decision but I found it cold and unemotional.

I struggled also with many of the characters including Fidelma herself. A woman approaching middle age and desperately longing for a child; finding herself the victim of a frankly horrific act of violence and then ultimately homeless in London should be a sympathetic character and yet I found myself at best unengaged and at worst incredibly frustrated by her ongoing apathy and life choices. One character I did relate to and who I would have liked to see more of is Mujo, the kitchen porter who first recognises that the new doctor is not who he is portraying himself to be and of whose back story we see only a little.

Ultimately whilst Edna O’Brien does an excellent job in painting scenes and snapshots that will stay with me I think my ultimate issue is that in a novel that takes its title from a moving war memorial the war itself is secondary and the characters truly impacted by the war be it Mujo or Zelmic have limited airtime in favour of exploring its impact on Fidelma. ( )
  itchyfeetreader | May 3, 2018 |
A wonderfully complex novel that begins in almost fairytale fashion when a mysterious stranger appears in a seemingly idyllic Irish village. Dr. Vladimir Dragan from Montenegro claims he was lured to Ireland by a pale-faced woman with tears streaming down her cheeks -- familiar in Ireland as Aisling, meaning dream. The stranger is a philosopher-poet-healer who captivates the villagers, especially the women, and most particularly Fidelma, with his charismatic charm. But O'Brien casts an evil spell over the encounter of the stranger and the village.

Vladimir Dragan is modelled upon Radovan Karadzic, the Serbian president of Republika Srpska from 1992 to 1996, who masterminded the siege of Sarajevo and the ethnic genocide of Muslim and Croat civilians. This is not a historical novel in which real people appear as themselves in actual events, rather O'Brien is confronting the realities when the victims of violence flee to other countries as immigrants. And it is a novel about trying to find home in a world that violently thrusts people from the places they once considered home.

It isn't for readers who like neatly wrapped plots or straightforward narration. There are multiple narrators and viewpoints, and the horrific complexities of the conflicts of the contemporary world are center-stage. ( )
  janeajones | Feb 22, 2018 |
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"It's simply a remarkable novel....Yet if “The Little Red Chairs” is obviously about displacement and immigration, obviously about the toll of war and its murderers and victims, it is also about how the tentacles of globalization reach everywhere, even into the corners of provincial Ireland."
The real genius of this novel – and I don’t use the word lightly – is to take us right up close to worlds that we normally only read about in newspapers, to make us sweat and care about them, and at the same time create something that feels utterly original, urgent, beautiful. It’s hard to believe that any novel could do more. And it’s hard – no, almost impossible – to believe that O’Brien is in her ninth decade, for this is absolutely the work of a writer in her prime and at the very height of her phenomenal powers.
"This is a spectacular piece of work, massive and ferocious and far-reaching, yet also at times excruciatingly, almost unbearably, intimate. Holding you in its clutches from first page to last, it dares to address some of the darkest moral questions of our times while never once losing sight of the sliver of humanity at their core."
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With thanks; Zrinka Bralo, Ed Vulliamy, Mary Martin (aged six)
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The town takes its name from the river.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0316378232, Hardcover)

A woman discovers that the foreigner she thinks will redeem her life is a notorious war criminal.

Vlad, a stranger from Eastern Europe masquerading as a healer, settles in a small Irish village where the locals fall under his spell. One woman, Fidelma McBride, becomes so enamored that she begs him for a child. All that world is shattered when Vlad is arrested, and his identity as a war criminal is revealed.

Fidelma, disgraced, flees to England and seeks work among the other migrants displaced by wars and persecution. But it is not until she confronts him-her nemesis-at the tribunal in The Hague, that her physical and emotional journey reaches its breathtaking climax.

THE LITTLE RED CHAIRS is a book about love, and the endless search for it. It is also a book about mankind's fascination with evil, and how long, how crooked, is the road towards Home.

(retrieved from Amazon Tue, 20 Oct 2015 09:48:54 -0400)

"Ten years on from her last novel, Edna O'Brien reminds us why she is thought to be one of the great Irish writers of this and any generation. When a wanted war criminal from the Balkans, masquerading as a faith healer, settles in a small west coast Irish village, the community are in thrall. One woman, Fidelma McBride, falls under his spell and in this astonishing novel, Edna O'Brien charts the consequences of that fatal attraction. The Little Red Chairs is a story about love, the artifice of evil, and the terrible necessity of accountability in our shattered, damaged world. A narrative which dares to travel deep into the darkness has produced a book of enormous emotional intelligence and courage. Written with a fierce lyricism and sensibility, The Little Red Chairs dares to suggest there is a way back to redemption and hope when great evil is done. Almost six decades on from her debut, Edna O'Brien has produced what may be her masterpiece in the novel form."--Publisher's description.… (more)

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