It’s been about 10 years since Edna O’Brien’s last novel was published, but the award-winning Irish novelist, now 85, hasn’t retired as have a couple of her octogenarian peers, Philip Roth and Alice Munro. O’Brien’s new novel, “The Little Red Chairs,” reaffirms her vitality and her talent and passion for storytelling.
The novel’s title may be a bit misleading, evoking images of mundane objects that might belong to children. They do indeed belong to children, but these red chairs, 643 of them, commemorate the deaths of the children killed during the siege of Sarajevo in 1992. Thus, the love story, set in 2012, about a lonely Irish woman who has an affair with a mysterious man becomes a political novel, since the man is later revealed to be a possible war criminal. He’s a composite fictional character who resembles the former Bosnian Serb President Radovan Karadzic, who was recently found guilty of genocide and other crimes.
O’Brien’s story begins when a stranger, who calls himself Dr. Vladimir Dragan, arrives in remote Cloonoila, Ireland, where he plans to live. A mystic-philosopher, a poet and a healer, the black-smocked Dr. Vlad wears a beard, his white hair tied in a topknot.
He’s quite the item in Cloonoila, and soon the village women go agog over him, especially Fidelma McBride, a 40ish beauty with black hair, porcelain skin and a Gioconda smile. Despite her name, Fidelma is anything but faithful to her older husband, Jack, who’s in his 60s.
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O’Brien portrays Fidelma as a romantic who thinks of Jack as once being the “Brooding Heathcliff that used to sign birthday cards to her,” but the difference in their ages has begun to matter. Jack has become less outgoing, shutting the world out, and “drawing the heavy velvet curtains too early on a bright evening.” Fidelma has had two miscarriages and Jack compounds her sorrow by saying more than once that a “house without a child was an empty nest.” She’s lonely. She longs for a child. Or, as Dr. Vlad tells her, “what you want is a lover.”
Their affair begins, and Fidelma becomes pregnant. But what began as a deal to make a child evolves into love, at least on Fidelma’s part, and she’s conflicted about revealing the affair and her early-stage pregnancy to Jack.
As time passes, Dr. Vlad ingratiates himself with the village folk. But during a nature trip with the children, he is identified as an alleged war criminal, the “Beast of Bosnia.” He’s taken off the bus, arrested and transported to The Hague to be tried for war crimes. Because of her relationship with the Beast, Fidelma’s marriage is destroyed and her life in Cloonoila undermined. She’s assaulted by Dragan’s cohorts. She exiles herself to London, where she works various menial jobs with other immigrants, and later attends Dragan’s trial, hoping to confront the beast who had deceived her.
It’s hard to believe that an 85-year-old can still write books big in size and scope with such vitality, grace and precision, but that’s exactly what O’Brien does. Parts of the story are horrific – what story about a tyrant wouldn’t be? – but that ghastliness is handled as gracefully as ghastliness can be. Ultimately, O’Brien has created characters so multifaceted and vivid that they don’t become stereotypical as this masterwork evolves from love story into engaging political novel about real-world tyrants.
“The Little Red Chairs”
By Edna O’Brien
Little, Brown, 320 pages