The Little Red Chairs – Edna O’Brien – Review by Pat V.
A book that begins with a middle-aged man from the Balkans arriving in a small, rural Irish town and setting up as a sex therapist might well be expected to promise exploits of the “Carry On” variety but Edna O’Brien’s 24th novel presents a very different picture. While the reaction of the town dignitaries initially fulfil our comic expectations, we very quickly realise that Dr Vladimir Dragan, or Vuk (as he likes to be called), who describes himself as a healer and sex therapist from Montenegro, is a sinister figure and it is no surprise when the novel takes a dark and tragic turn.
O’Brien’s preface to the work has already prepared us for this when she tells us that the red chairs of the title refer to the 11,541 plastic seats laid out on Sarajevo’s main street, in 2012, to commemorate the dead of the siege of the city 20 years earlier, and specifically of the 643 little red chairs in memory of the children massacred. Her visitor from the Balkans is based on Radovan Karadzic, “The Butcher of Bosnia”, found guity in March 2016 of genocide and crimes against humanity, who used the alias Dr Dragan David Dabic during his long period as a fugitive. Like Vuk, in the novel, Karadzic dabbled in alternative medicine and poetry. The focus of the novel, therefore, is not to surprise the reader with the revelation of Dragen’s real identity but to show the effect he has on a simple, trusting community and the destruction he leaves in his wake.
Like Dylan Thomas in Under Milk Wood, O’Brien presents us at the start with the inner life of a wide tableau of characters in Cloonoila, the fictional West of Ireland town where the action is set. Within the first few pages we meet the nosy postmistress, the bumbling garda, the friendly hotelier, the likeable nun and others but the focus of our attention is the town beauty, Fidelma, an unhappily married woman who longs to have a baby. All are initially intrigued by the charismatic Dr. Dragan and, in spite of opposition from the parish priest, Fr. Damien, he quickly establishes himself in the village.
When Fidelma approaches him for help with her fertility problems the die is cast and the consequence of their meeting alters her life in totally unforeseen ways. The second part of the novel concentrates on Fidelma and her struggle to survive and to understand the man who has affected her life so dramatically. While Dragan appears only in a short section of the book, his shadow hangs over the whole work like a malevolent force that entices and destroys.
Though in her 85th year, O’Brien’s writing has lost none of its strength or immediacy. The deceptively gentle start of the novel does not prepare us for the terrible story she has to tell and though it is told with great sensitivity, it is none the less shocking. She does not shield us from the horrors of genocide or the trauma of the displaced. Through Fidelma’s journey and the lost souls she encounters O’Brien jolts us out of our complacency and makes us see with fresh eyes the suffering we so often choose to ignore.
This version for Audible is excellently narrated by Juliet Stevenson (Truly, Madly, Deeply) who is faced with no easy task. She presents a large cast of characters, male and female, Irish, British, Bosnian, African and succeeds in giving individuality to all of them. At times, some of the townsfolk of Cloonoila do sound a bit Oirish but, overall, this is a small complaint. This is an enthralling book and Edna O’Brien richly deserves the recognition and tribute awarded to her on Sunday 24 April in the Gaiety Theatre.
The Audiobook is available for download from audible.co.uk and lasts 9h 40 mins.