The Little Red Chairs, Edna O’Brien: 'O’Brien at her lyrical best' - book review

The story of a woman called Fidelma, the beauty of a village on the west coast of Ireland, who is beguiled by a stranger

Edna O’Brien, The Little Red Chairs
Edna O’Brien, The Little Red Chairs

“The great Edna O’Brien has written her masterpiece,” says none other than Philip Roth, who calls her the most gifted woman writing in English. He may be right. At times it feels like an adult fairy tale, at times like a report from a war zone, at times like oral history; but at all times like a magical, deadly, wonderful, sickening, enchanting thing. This is the story of a woman called Fidelma, the beauty of a village on the west coast of Ireland, who is beguiled by a stranger.

The mysterious doctor in a long, dark coat and white gloves is a poet and a healer who offers massages and holistic treatments and seduces the people of Cloonoila, even leading their children out into the wild. His name – at least to them – is Vlad. You are right to think of Dracula.

Fidelma, desperate for a child, betrays her husband and takes what she needs from the doctor, becoming pregnant. But the price is terrible. He is arrested and revealed to be a war criminal. The Little Red Chairs takes its name from the 11,541 red chairs laid out in rows in Sarajevo in 2012 to mark the 20th anniversary of the siege of that city, one chair for every person killed. Clearly, Vlad is modelled on Radovan Karadzic, the real-life “Butcher of Bosnia”.

Fidelma finds herself bearing the child of a man reviled; but the way his betrayed former allies take revenge when they find her will make you gasp and weep. It is the beginning of a descent into the circles of Hell from which it seems Fidelma will never rise.

But O’Brien has risen from ashes herself, in a way. Her books were burned in Ireland in the Sixties, but now at last she is proclaimed as one of that literary nation’s finest writers. Now in her eighties, she has written her fiercest and greatest book, a testament to the strength, endurance and inventiveness of women even in the face of horrors.

It also reminds us that the refugee on our screen, the homeless stranger on our street, the night cleaner at the office, these men, women and children are not Other but our own flesh and blood as humans.

Fidelma is not quite lost while there is still magic and hope in the world, the way Edna O’Brien wills it to be. Her prose is lyrical, as ever; but here it is also as sharp as a blade.

“War is a lottery,” says one character. “Count your lucky stars that you are here.” I did, after reading The Little Red Chairs, a mesmerising book from a writer at the height of her powers, giving voices to the voiceless.

The Little Red Chairs, by Edna O’Brien, published by Faber & Faber £18.99

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Please enter a valid email
Please enter a valid email
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Please enter your first name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
Please enter your last name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
You must be over 18 years old to register
You must be over 18 years old to register
Opt-out-policy
You can opt-out at any time by signing in to your account to manage your preferences. Each email has a link to unsubscribe.

By clicking ‘Create my account’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

Comments

Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in