Edna O’Brien, The Little Red Chairs (Faber & Faber 2015)
This book’s title, supplemented by a note explaining it before the title page, warns us what to expect. In 2012, the note says, an installation of 11,541 red chairs was set up in Sarajevo to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the start of the siege of that city by Bosnian Serb forces: one empty chair for every Sarajevan killed during the siege, and of them 643 little red chairs to represent children. Somehow, we are being warned, the horrors of that siege will feature in what we are about to read.
Yet the novel starts out in a tiny community in the west of Ireland that could almost be Ballykissangel revisited – or an Irish version of Doc Martin‘s Port Wenn or Hamish Macbeth’s Lochdubh, with a pub, a policeman, a nun, a refurbished castle. A tall stranger in a long dark coat comes to town, bringing with him a whiff of the exotic, some intrigue, some sexiness. He’s a practitioner of alternative medicines. All set for a cosy comedy except, even if you’re smart enough to have avoided the terrible spoiler on the back cover, you’ve been warned.
The stranger gives a new lease of life to Sister Bonaventure, and his healing hands and herbs do wonders for many of the villagers, especially the women. Fidelma O’Brien, whose older husband can’t give her children, and whose shop selling imported finery has gone bust because a new expressway has meant most of her customers can go to the nearest city, decides she wants to get pregnant by him.
Not unexpectedly, things go terribly wrong. Then, at about the midpoint of the book, when Fidelma is pregnant, the stranger’s past has caught up with him, and the reader is wondering where on earth the story can go now, there is a moment of extreme sexual violence which I for one didn’t see coming even one paragraph before it happened, followed by a deeply distressing, and equally unexpected by me, moment of moral violence. Suddenly, it is a completely different kind of book. It becomes, in effect, Edna O’Brien’s equivalent of a red chairs installation.
The novel moves away from the tiny village, to return only briefly towards the end, and its narrative through line almost disappears in a harrowing series of tales of abuse, dislocation, and refuge. It’s as if the small story of the first half was split open and the whole suffering world was allowed to flow in through the cracks. Edna O’brien is a masterful writer, and she takes the reader with her to some very dark places, to reach a resolution that is a long way from restoring the comfort of the beginning.