The Little Red Chairs

Image of The Little Red Chairs
Release Date: 
March 28, 2016
Little, Brown & Company
Reviewed by: 

Irish novelist Edna O’Brien does not shy away from controversial issues. Her first novel The Country Girls (1960) was reviled in Ireland, burned for its frank depictions of sexual hypocrisy in the Irish postwar years. In her latest book, she takes on the atrocities committed in the Serbo-Croatian war through the story of an evil man devoid of mercy and human feeling. Woven through is a cautionary tale of obsession, the destructive nature of blind faith, and a meditation on misguided love.

Like in a fairy tale, a sleepy Irish village comes to life when a tall, dark and mysterious man appears. Dr. Vladimir Dragan, self-proclaimed sex and massage therapist and poet, revives Cloonoila as if from a somnambulant enchantment.

The first villager he meets, a young man named Dara, “felt as if he should genuflect” as Vladimir floats through the door of his pub. Vladimir tells Dara he’s from Montenegro, a land far away from Ireland, vague and obscure, cloaking his past in shadow. “A woman brought me here,” he cryptically tells Dara, implying the place is capable of beckoning from half a world away. O’Brien describes a wizard-like man with a long, gray beard, “transfixing eyes” and an “aura of one of those bold men, pilgrims.” Crackling with sexuality, he splits the little town wide open.

With her lovely dark hair and blended Spanish-Irish ancestry, Dr. Vlad feels immediate attraction for Fidelma McBride when he stumbles upon her in the woods, washing her face in the freezing cold water of the river—a fertility ritual of sorts. Fidelma’s high fashion boutique has just gone out of business, dashing her dream of bringing sophistication to her little corner of the world.

Unhappy in her loveless marriage, and stymied by an inability to have children with her husband Jack, “the difference in their age had begun to matter.” A marriage already troubled grows colder, her husband’s cold spite causing her to withdraw further into herself.

Ripe for seduction, moments after he asks if he could rent space from her closed shop to open his own office, she feels a spark awaken, “There were more stars . . . a cold and silvery night that now seemed full of sudden and sourceless promise.” 

Within weeks, she asks him for her fondest wish, to father her child. He resists, but she is persistent. Discovering she’s also a poet, a lover of literature and words, he softens. In the face of her determination, his protests grow weaker until a torrid affair begins. Even after Jack’s made it clear he sees everything, it’s beyond Fidelma’s ability to end the relationship. Though he’s capitulated, Vlad warns, “We must not get your story mixed up with my story, Fidelma.”

As abruptly as it began, the relationship begins to sour. Sensing the ire of those who’ve discovered their secret, Vlad coldly turns away, ”Start forgetting, Fidelma,” he tells her. Forced back into a lonely existence with her wounded, reticent husband, Fidelma exists as best she can, her shame like an open wound on her face.

As if in sympathy with one woman’s plight, life in Cloonoila begins to unravel. Sighting Dr. Vlad in a restaurant, a busboy freezes in terror. Recognizing the mysterious man as a war criminal from the Serbo-Crotian conflict known as the “Beast of Bosnia,” the terrified boy jumps on him, attacking savagely. His accusations discounted at first, soon the truth emerges: Dr. Vladimir Dragan is not the man he’d claimed to be, not the man the village had wished him into becoming.

The Little Red Chairs is a darkly moving exploration of the human susceptibility to believe himself or herself special and apart. The citizens of a tiny town, flattered a man of irresistible charisma has chosen them from all the possible places he could have landed, are blinded to the possibility he could be anyone other than he claims. Duped by a charlatan, they watch as he’s lead away:

“The last image they had was of his tall figure, unbowed but humiliated, starting down the steps of the bus and just as the sun had soaked into the young ash leaves, it now rasped on the bracelets of metal that bound his wrists.”

Just as he’d arrived, the tall figure departs.

In Fidelma, O’Brien sympathetically portrays a lonely young woman with an artistic soul, her simple wish to fill her life with beautiful words as well as the loving and nurturing of a child. Ultimately, this is Fidelma’s story. Though Dr. Vladimir Dragan is its looming villain, brilliantly realized in O’Brien’s sophisticated and atmospheric prose, the innocent character left most affected is the woman who risked the most. Dragan’s doom was a foregone conclusion, O’Brien choice to make Fidelma’s fate so grim a conscious effort to point the finger of blame at a fallen woman.

Lovers of Edna O’Brien’s ethereal and poetic prose will not be disappointed with this novel. In it she proves herself every bit as powerful a prose stylist as ever. What’s more, she flexes her literary muscles by producing a sort of novel-within-a-novel, giving displaced and damaged refugees from Bosnia and beyond the opportunity to give voice,in a long section one third of the way through The Little Red Chairs

Heartbreaking and brutal as it is, there’s redemption to be found here. There’s promise that once the pain has healed in the end there is always hope:

“I tend not to look at the prison wall of life, but to look up at the sky, as it is more beautiful and more spacious. Try to do that and remember that you are wanted.”