The Little Red Chairs marked my first foray into Edna O’Brien’s work of over twenty novels. She is an author whom I have heard a lot of wonderful things about over the last few years, but reception for this, her newest novel for ten years, has appeared rather mixed. Regardless, there are some wonderfully positive reviews splashed across the cover; The New Yorker deems it ‘Astonishing… A remarkable novel… A vital and engrossing experience’, Claire Messud calls it ‘At once arduous and beautiful’, and Philip Roth thinks it ‘a masterpiece’. The Little Red Chairs was also shortlisted for the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year 2016, and was a book of the year for the Sunday Times, the Observer, and the Sunday Express.
The Little Red Chairs is set in a village on the west-coast of Ireland. A faith healer, who calls himself Dr Vladimir Dragan, or ‘Vuk’ for short, arrives from the Balkans, mystifying residents and putting the community ‘under [his] spell’. He attempts to ‘set himself up’ in the village as an ‘alternative healer and sex therapist’, which is a shock to the shrouded and traditional Catholicism of the place. One villager in particular, Fidelma McBride, ‘becomes enthralled in a fatal attraction that leads to unimaginable consequences.’
The opening description of the novel, in which O’Brien masterfully captures a wild river, and its effects upon the faith healer, is sweeping, and really sets the tone for the first half of the novel: ‘He stays by the water’s edge, apparently mesmerised by it. Bearded and in a long dark coat and white gloves, he stands on the narrow bridge, looks down at the roaring current, then looks around, seemingly a little lost, his presence the single curiosity in the monotony of a winter evening in a freezing backwater that passes for a town and is named Cloonoila.’
The Little Red Chairs is at first largely quiet, involved almost entirely with people and their interactions, as well as their reception of the faith healer. One gets a feel for the villagers immediately, along with their differences and similarities. The way in which O’Brien tends to reveal characters at random, with Fidelma and Vuk as her main focus, is effective in this respect. The plot seems a little sparse to sustain itself over the entire novel, but the twist which comes changes the tone entirely, and adds something rather sinister to the whole. One can tell throughout that O’Brien is an accomplished author.
O’Brien’s novel rather chillingly begins with the following memorial: ‘On the 6th of April 2012, to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the start of the siege of Sarajevo by Bosnian Serb forces, 11,541 red chairs were laid out in rows along the eight hundred metres of the Sarajevo high street. One empty chair for each 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.’ The reasons for this become more and more clear as the novel goes on, and details of the faith healer’s past emerge. I was a little surprised by some of the outcomes of the novel, but feel as though O’Brien handled the content with both sensibility and sensitivity.
Whilst rather disturbing in places, and surprisingly so, all of the story’s threads were well pulled together. Unfortunately, there were a couple of instances in which it felt as though the plot had been rushed, or something had not quite come to a natural conclusion. I very much enjoyed O’Brien’s prose, but the dialogue felt awkward at times. Conversations were jarring and rather unlikely, often veering towards the pretentious. I would definitely like to try O’Brien’s other work in future, and believe I may plump for some short stories next, to see how they compare.