Edna O’Brien
The Little Red Chairs

Critic V. S. Pritchett once described Dostoevsky’s incorrigibly voluble characters as having souls that loll from their mouths like tongues. Edna O’Brien’s new novel – the 17th in a career that spans half a century and more – displays a similarly revealing garrulity. Her women and men speak eloquently and often, and mainly in fragments and non sequiturs. Memories, dreams, reflections spill from their lips in language heated over the candle of authorial imagination to the point of melting. The result is a kind of contained phantasmagoria: deliquescent yet disconcertingly here and now, an archaic choric drama laid over the homespun realism of William Maxwell and John McGahern.

The time is the indeterminate near present, the place eternal small-town Ireland. There is one pub with its cast of bar stool eccentrics, several B&Bs, a failing boutique, and nearby a castle retooled as a function centre and accommodation for shooters and fly fishermen. When the man who comes to be known as Dr Vlad first arrives, white-bearded and shrouded in a long black coat, he is the news of the place: Montenegrin, apparently; certainly cosmopolitan, charismatic, magnetically attractive to the women of the village. But he is also a healer of sorts, a purveyor of esoteric alternative therapies (including, to the chagrin of the local bishop, those dealing with sexual matters) who promptly lays out his shingle in the town. It’s little wonder an unimpressed local school teacher compares him with Rasputin.

But Vuk, as he is known to his intimates, is both everything he claims to be and something else altogether: a war criminal on the run. Early on we learn that during the Balkans conflict he committed atrocities against Bosnia’s Muslim population. He was a doctor of mystically nationalist bent whose surname, which may be familiar to readers with knowledge of the dozen years that “the butcher of Bosnia” Radovan Karadžić spent on the run, is Dragan.

Dr Vlad is initially held in high regard by the locals: he has the authority of a physician and the bedside manner of a poet. The combination proves intoxicating to the town beauty, Fidelma McBride, married to a mild and decent man but desperate for a child after two miscarriages. It is Vuk who steps into the breach – half as a healer, half as a lover – and Fidelma becomes pregnant just in time to see her lover hauled off a bus on the way to a poetry reading on Ben Bulben, in order to face charges of genocide at The Hague.

The consequences of this event for Fidelma are as shocking and devastating as any in contemporary fiction. Indeed, the book hinges on an act of violence so unforeseen, so outrageous that I gasped out loud. Fidelma, the shy, gentle woman from an impoverished rural background, is dragged into a world utterly unlike her own with a violence that is unforgivable, unsurvivable. When the curtain rises on the novel’s second act, its bucolic frame has been well and truly smashed.

But even though the action moves to London, where Fidelma seeks to carve out a new, ground-level existence for herself – with a side trip to the Netherlands so that she and the reader might witness evil failing to recognise its own nature – the resonances established by the initial sections linger. Fidelma’s village is called Cloonoila, which translates from Gaelic as “the blemished meadow”. And this sense of quiet pastoral beauty is what the author arrays against the contaminating narratives of the late 20th and early 21st century: unprecedented violence against civilians, women and children especially, and those from racial or religious minorities; and the exodus that such violence inspires – the largest movement of people in human history.

It is a frail rigging from which to hang such heavy stuff, and I am not sure that the author intends her descriptions of Ireland’s countryside to serve as counterweight to the horrors her novel also portrays: the massacre of innocents, the rape and torture of those who in other situations would be neighbours and friends. Yet there is a logic to the parcelling out of narrative perspective within the book. O’Brien gives space to those who would otherwise exist at the margins of more cosy middlebrow fictions, and voice. It is these interstitial narratives that insist on the existence, the survival and the dignity of those who might otherwise be condemned to silence.

This is a novel at once intensely fictive, couched in a language of Yeatsian ripeness and carrying mythic shadowings, which turns out to be hopelessly entangled in the world as it is. And coming as it does from the pen of a woman who is 84 years old, it is an admonishment as much as a gift. The title refers to an art installation organised in 2012 to mark the 20th anniversary of the siege of Sarajevo, when about 11,500 empty red chairs (a number of them smaller, indicating children) were set out in Sarajevo to commemorate the victims of Bosnian Serb forces.

Fidelma’s story is one of expanding exposure to the horror of events: it is the story of a woman whose one empty red chair might stand for hundreds and thousands of others. We hear much about the self-congratulatory banalities of the “neoliberal novel”, in which the same conservative concerns of the 19th-century iteration of the genre are repackaged with women, say, or people with different coloured skin or sexual orientation at their heart. But what O’Brien has produced is a book whose literary qualities are sacrificed on the altar of real outrage. It is a beautiful book and an unblinkingly harsh narrative: one whose intermittent beauty is not an antidote to the cruelty of the world but a small gesture of acknowledgment towards those who feel its weight more heavily than we do.

And this attitude and approach, as Simone Weil once wrote, is at the core of the literary enterprise, the empathic imagination with which the true novelist is obliged to work: “Human beings are so made that the ones who do the crushing feel nothing; it is the person crushed who feels what is happening. Unless one has placed oneself on the side of the oppressed, to feel with them, one cannot understand.”  AF

Faber, 320pp, $49.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 12, 2015 as "Edna O’Brien, The Little Red Chairs".

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Reviewer: AF