A swift river shapes the sleepy Irish town of Cloonoila, the backdrop for a story about deceit, redemption, and finding one’s way home.
Ten years since Edna O’Brien has penned a novel, she brings us The Little Red Chairs, a story loosely based on Radovan Karadžić, the war criminal who eluded capture for 12 years following the Bosnian War ceasefire and subsequent peace agreement.
In O’Brien’s novel, Dr. Vladamir Dragan arrives in quaint Cloonoila after years of hiding in monasteries and slipping through Mediterranean ports to escape capture for his hideous war crimes. Sheltered from the outside world, the townsfolk of Cloonoila are both old-fashioned and impressionable, an ideal populace behind which Dragan can hide his past and build a new life as a healer and therapist.
Although initially apprehensive of Dragan’s “sex therapy” in their Catholic town, the citizens not only come to accept him, but they become enamored with his very presence. Nearly unrecognizable from his military days, his long black coat and masculine white beard and topknot are mysteriously alluring. His looks coupled with his charisma and poise have women across the town whispering about him. Here the story shifts to a focus on Fidelma McBride, the draper’s wife and town beauty, who becomes fixated on the enigmatic healer.
He senses her obsession, and after a rousing book club meeting spent discussing Dido from the "Aenid," he says to her, “At the risk of being too blunt … it seems to me Mrs McBride … that what you want is a lover.” She has outgrown her tired marriage, and childless, she begs Dragan for an affair with hopes of conceiving a child.
O’Brien does not sugarcoat the implications of the tryst, and Fidelma suffers great consequences when Dragan’s criminal past comes to light. Unable to bear the weight of her choices in Cloonoila, she flees to perhaps run from, heal, or forget what she has endured.
Although Fidelma is the driving force throughout the novel, O’Brien tells haunting tales of other displaced people who cross paths with the protagonist. O’Brien explores the nuances of what it means to be a refugee and to find oneself far from familiarity and comfort. While Fidelma adjusts to a life not too distant from her homeland, other characters come from much farther – Bosnia, Senegal, Argentina – and they all have suffered, with the hardships impacting no two characters in the same way.
The cast flows in and out of the novel realistically. Some are central for a mere chapter before Fidelma moves on. Others pulse throughout the story, touching Fidelma’s life at numerous points during her evolution.
Through these characters, O’Brien beautifully tackles some of the most far-reaching human emotions. A woman full of guilt by association, a lonely child hidden away from the world like a China doll, a 20-something searching for love in the glitz and glamour of a nightclub. Each story is tender and delicately woven to portray the vivid realities of modern-day refugees.
Dreams, ghosts, superstition, Roman epics, and Shakespearean plays also shape the characters’ perspectives throughout the story. Whether it is their naiveté or a deep-seated connection between them and the spiritual and physical realms is up for the reader to decide.
O’Brien’s story telling is raw, and at times graphic. Assaults and abuse are not glazed over. She wants the reader to face the ugly truths that many have suffered at the hands of genocide or painful cultural practices. But the beauty of the prose, which courses effortlessly across the pages, balances the horror of such instances. Attention is given to minute details, depicting a porch “smothered with wisteria” and a statue “improved by a straggling necklace of icicles.”
Stylistically, O’Brien utilizes third-person narrative with an infrequent blend of the first-person perspective. At one point in the novel, the speaker is an unknown child, and at other points it is Fidelma, or her husband. This allows the reader to rely on the trustworthy and omniscient voice of O’Brien, while sampling the more poignant perspectives of the characters. It also adds differing levels of intimacy based on what O’Brien aims to portray at each particular moment.
The final chapters of the novel lead Fidelma to The Hague, where she might have the opportunity to face Dragan one last time as he stands trial for his atrocities. At once gut-wrenching and hopeful, O’Brien helps the reader experience through Fidelma the pain of guilt and displacement, and the power that can accompany a deeper definition of “home.”