Book review: The Little Red Chairs by Edna O’Brien

THE tears of victims of war crimes in the Balkans fall as far afield as rural Ireland in Edna O’Brien’s superb study of evil

Edna O'Brien. Picture: Fran Veale/Writer Pictures

The Little Red Chairs by Edna O’Brien | Faber & Faber, 297pp, £18.99

It is tempting to say that The Little Red Chairs is a remarkable novel to be written by an author now in her 80s – tempting but also condescending. It is simply a remarkable novel.

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A mysterious stranger, an impressive figure, walks into a pub in a small town in the west of Ireland, seeking accommodation. He tells the young barman he is a practitioner of alternative medicine and a sex therapist. Dr Vlad is soon established there.

Women flock to his clinic. Fidelma, a beautiful married woman who longs for a child, seeks his help and finds herself attracted to him. Perhaps it is her husband’s fault that she is barren. Eventually she goes, to a country house hotel with him. There is a disconcerting moment when a young Muslim refugee who works in the hotel kitchen attacks the doctor. But things are smoothed over, and after the weekend Fidelma is pregnant.

Then the police arrest Dr Vlad. He is a war criminal on the run, the Beast or Butcher of Bosnia. (Readers will probably have guessed already that Dr Vlad is the Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, poet and psychiatrist, never named by O’Brien but not at all disguised.) Fidelma is seized by two of his former associates who believe he has betrayed them, and in a truly horrible scene, abused. After recovering in a convent hospital, she flees to London, where she is absorbed into the flotsam and jetsam of the city – abused women and children, refugees and illegal immigrants, all scrabbling for a foothold, all suffering the pains and anxieties of dislocation and terrible memories.

Edna O’Brien writes of these lower depths of the world today with a wonderful imaginative sympathy: “if you have tears, prepare to shed them now”. Eventually, as she begins to recover her moral equilibrium, Fidelma nerves herself to go to The Hague to attend the trial of the man who was briefly her lover, the man whom she knew as someone it seems he never was. Will he be humbled and repentant as the record of his crimes is laid forth? Or will he be defiant, lying and full of self-pity even as the wives and mothers of his victims listen to his speeches from the dock? Which is the real man? The Beast of Bosnia or the charismatic doctor who once spoke tenderly to her? Is a man’s essence to be known only from his acts?

It is a bold novelist who tackles the problem of evil, or the nature of evil. There are echoes here of the Book of Job where Satan speaks of how he goes about the world. He walks at liberty through our one, and O’Brien traces his footsteps. She is a novelist who has written beautifully about love, love experienced and love denied; and even the world she presents us in this novel isn’t devoid of love and the hope of redemption. There is humanity and generosity here, as well as horror, in both Ireland and London, and Fidelma is a completely convincing heroine adrift in a world where, however, she learns to recognise the kindness and comfort of strangers.

A word on the title is called for. In 2012 , to commemorate the start of the siege of Sarajevo, red chairs were laid out in the city’s main street, one for every victim of the siege. Some 643 were little chairs, one for each child killed by snipers or artillery fire. Suffer the little children; at the heart of this novel is the question of man’s inhumanity. It’s a novel that is both angry and tender, beautifully written, indignant and also understanding, comic in the early scenes set in Ireland, altogether astonishing, the intolerable made tolerable by the depth of the author’s understanding and the healing power of art.

This is Edna O’Brien’s first novel for ten years, and it reads as if she had lived with its themes and characters in her imagination for a long time. So it is like a well-matured wine of a good vintage. Philip Roth is quoted on the cover as saying: “The great Edna O’Brien has written her masterpiece.” One should usually treat such puffs with scepticism. This time the claim may be justified.