Julie Christine's Reviews > The Little Red Chairs

The Little Red Chairs by Edna O'Brien
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it was amazing
bookshelves: best-of-2016, ireland-theme-setting, contemporary-fiction, read-2016, war-conflict

Edna O'Brien's novels were once censored in her native Ireland. The graphic nature of her subject matter—the violent, shameful, behind-closed-doors reality of Irish rural and religious life—have shocked and scandalized since her fiction debut, The Country Girls in 1960. Now eighty-five, she continues to challenge our notions of innocence and guilt, of sex and desire, of politics and prose. The Little Red Chairs, her first novel in ten years, is classic O'Brien: terrible and beautiful, unsentimental and transcendent.

There has always been something otherworldly, a little faerie tale-ish, about O'Brien's writing—a blend of lilting lyricism and fabulist style—that often distances the reader from the immediacy of the tragic worlds she portrays, like a layer of moss softening the blows from the hammerhead of her pen. In this instance she places us, as she often does, in the petty intimacy of an Irish village, a sodden, lush, secret place that both shelters and punishes its inhabitants with religion and tradition and family.

Fidelma is married to a man more than twenty years her senior and, as her husband becomes an old man in the grips of early dementia, she is choked by regret and loneliness. Longing for both children and passion, Fidelma wanders alone through the green fields and forests outside the western Ireland village of Cloonoila, fighting her body's yearnings. Thus, she is an easy mark for the town's newest resident, the mysterious Vladimir Dragan, a self-proclaimed healer and sex therapist. Vlad, with his long white hair, his black cloak and white gloves, and thick, seductive accent, seems a Gothic caricature. Fidelma is not the only Cloonoila resident to be caught in Dr. Dragan's spell: several nearly-comedic encounters, including the massage given to Sister Bonaventure, elevate Vlad to near-mystical regard by the villagers.

Then Fidelma becomes pregnant and the novel's murky, dreamy undertone takes a desperate, wretched turn toward verisimilitude. Let this serve as a trigger warning for those who cannot read graphic violence, particularly against women (a warning which should accompany nearly any O'Brien novel). Doctor Vlad is in fact a Serbian warlord known as “the beast of Bosnia,” accused of torture and genocide against Bosnian Croats and Muslims. The novel leaves the seemingly safe surrounds of rural Ireland and crash-lands in London, where Fidelma serves as a window into the world of exploited migrant workers. We travel with her into the Kent countryside, in search of refuge and redemption, and finally to The Hague and a war crimes tribunal, in search of justice.

Based on the hunt for the leader of the Serb Republic in Bosnia, Radovan Karadzic, who was captured in 2008 after thirteen years in hiding, The Little Red Chairs—like Lidia Yuknavitch's 2015 The Small Backs of Children—shows us the ancillary victims of war, the lives destroyed beyond the battlefields. She also explores themes of guilt and complicity, our unwitting acceptance of others' lies because we are so desperate to ignore our own truths. O'Brien smashes once again this notion of a charming Ireland knitted together by legend and rain with a hammer of reality ripped from headlines. Fidelma—at first a hapless victim—becomes a witness to others' suffering, as O'Brien herself has often done as a writer, finding redemption and courage in the raw humanity around her.

Gorgeously written, in bold prose that breaks all rules of conventional fiction writing, O'Brien's seventeenth novel shows a writer, now in her ninth decade, at her most fierce and powerful. I am in awe.
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Reading Progress

April 17, 2016 – Shelved
April 17, 2016 – Shelved as: to-read
June 12, 2016 – Started Reading
June 21, 2016 –
page 35
11.71% "Gorgeous, gorgeous writing. So happy to be caught in O'Brien's magical wordspell."
June 23, 2016 –
page 87
29.1% "This dreamy, otherworld, beyond time, wet, green, windy, mystical place is exactly where I need to be right now."
June 24, 2016 –
page 123
41.14% ""If you buy a canary, you have to let it sing.""
June 25, 2016 – Shelved as: best-of-2016
June 25, 2016 – Shelved as: ireland-theme-setting
June 25, 2016 – Shelved as: contemporary-fiction
June 25, 2016 – Shelved as: read-2016
June 25, 2016 – Shelved as: war-conflict
June 25, 2016 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-3 of 3 (3 new)

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message 1: by Jaidee (new)

Jaidee Julie thank you for this powerful review.

Wow we own this book but I am going to put it on hold for a little longer.

Suzy I just finished this, Julie, and will give it 5 stars, but am having a hard time formulating what to say about it. It is inspiring to read your brilliant review of this brilliant book. I had not read O'Brien before so I appreciate that you brought in themes from her previous writings. Parts of this were not easy to listen to, but those things were important to be heard. I just kept thinking anyone an be complicit and everyone has a story to be told.

message 3: by Margitte (last edited Sep 28, 2016 10:17AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Margitte To say it is a great review is to sound blasé, but it is really a wonderful piece of work, Julie. Like Suzy I did not know how to formulate my thoughts. Truth is the book left me exhausted and nauseous to the bone.

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