With thanks to Faber and Faber and Netgalley for the review copy.
“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 every 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.”
In 1992 when these horrific events took place I was twenty four, working, taking notice of things that happen in the world. It was the year before I bought my first flat, but when I look back on that year I find I can no longer remember the daily bulletins from Sarejevo – which I must have watched (I’ve always been a news junkie) I found as I was reading, those names; Sarejevo, Srebrenica came back to me with a familiar shudder. The distance of a little more than twenty years has almost made me forget – how could I have forgotten that such atrocities took place in Europe just eight years before the dawn of the twenty-first century? Of course one can’t forget an entire conflict, but I feel as if other wars remain forever at the edges of our combined consciousness, and that the Bosnian war hasn’t.
Many might be surprised that Edna O’ Brien has made these events the basis for her latest novel; The Little Red Chairs which is both beautiful and brutal. Written with O’Brien’s captivating, lyrical prose – this novel is both haunting and compelling, with this novel she shows herself to be a novelist still at the top of her game. Her descriptive powers remain sublime; it is with a keenly observant eye that she shows us both rural Ireland, and the London sprawl of dual carriageways, refugee centres and office buildings.
“Long afterwards there would be those who reported strange occurrences on that same winter evening; dogs barking crazily, as if there was thunder, and the sound of the nightingale, whose song and warblings were never heard so far west. The child of a gipsy family, who lived in a caravan by the sea, swore she saw the Pooka man coming through the window at her, pointing a hatchet.”
As the novel opens a stranger comes to the small, Irish village of Cloonoila, a man in a long black coat, with long white hair and beard. He has travelled a long way (from Montenegro he says) He calls himself a faith healer. Going by the name of Dr Vladamir Dragan, he goes about setting up a practice in the rural backwater. The people of Cloonila are quickly beguiled by the presence of this unusual stranger – he seems to gather the people to him, as if almost he were collecting souls. There is his landlady Fifi, Mona who owns the pub and Dara with the spikey hair who works there, Father Damien a young priest, Sister Bonaventure a nun, and most importantly Fidelma McBride an unhappily married woman, the village beauty, who is desperate for a child following a couple of miscarriages.
“He was there almost a month, but still something of a stranger, a curiosity, glimpsed in the very early morning, his trouser legs rolled up, gathering stones from the river and on other mornings, he went with the shearers to gather seaweed for his massages and body wraps. Herbs and tinctures from China, India, Burma and Wales were despatched day by day and the postmistress, the town Sphinx, said that some of the stuff had a smell of cow dung.”
Fidelma rashly asks Vuk (as he is known) to father the child she longs for so desperately. Vuk agrees, and Fidelma plans to betray her husband. The consequences for Fidelma are destined to be brutally horrific – a scene I shall say no more about – but I really wanted to look away.
Nearby at the Castle, now a country house hotel, the staff are a disparate group from around Europe, many of them escaping something. One of them Mujo is practically mute following the things he has seen – his trauma is such he feels he has no past. It is Mujo who first recognises Vuk as being not who he claims to be. When the other hotel staff gather on the verandah to tell their stories Mujo is unable.
“Then it was Mujo’s turn. Ne. Ne. Ne. He rolls himself into a ball and Hedda kneels to console him, but he fends her off. He could not tell his story the way the others did because the words had stopped inside him. He was dumb, dumbstruck.”
A day trip to Ben Bulben is arranged for the villagers, and it is while everyone is on the coach during the journey there, that they come for Vuk, ‘the beast of Bosnia’ the most wanted man in all Europe, a war criminal.
The aftermath of horror is particularly felt by Fidelma, her world is shattered and she pays a terrible price. Fidelma flees to London – where she joins the faceless, voiceless peoples who scrape a living together by cleaning office buildings of glass at night. In this second part of the novel we meet the broken and the lost; we hear their stories of female genital mutilation, ethnic cleansing and war.
The final part of the novel Fidelma travels to The Hague for the trial of the man she knew as Vuk. A man who shows not one iota of regret for the things he did and ordered to be done. It is Fidelma’s chance to put the past to bed.
The Little Red Chairs is a novel about those lost and brutalised peoples of the world, it’s probably not a novel I would have associated with Edna O’Brien – it is really a long way from The Country Girls. In this novel Edna O’Brien shows an astute understanding of the Europe we are left with in the twenty first century, the displaced peoples who move across the continent are here given a voice.