Edna O’Brien, one of the jewels in the crown of Irish literature, has long given voice to her homeland’s tragic lyricism. At 85, O’Brien has lost none of her talent or fire. Indeed, her new novel, The Little Red Chairs—her first in a decade—may be the fiercest work of her estimable career.
Arriving in a small, off-the-beaten-track village in the west of Ireland, Vladimir Dragan sets up shop as a holistic healer. Handsome and darkly charismatic, the aging man charms the women of the community, particularly Fidelma, once the town beauty and now the 40-ish wife of an older man. Fidelma’s great sadness is never having had a child, and Vlad comes to represent her last chance to fulfill that dream. Soon pregnant, Fidelma has her happiness shattered when the past catches up with her mysterious lover. Vlad is arrested as a war criminal—a savage master of evil responsible for thousands of violent deaths during the Bosnian war. His exposure and extradition shocks the villagers, but Fidelma’s devastation goes beyond emotional despair as she endures an unthinkable act of retribution.
The Little Red Chairs takes its title from a 2012 memorial installation in Sarajevo where 11,541 red chairs represented every Sarajevan killed during the 1,425-day siege. O’Brien comes at the story from many points of view—not only Fidelma and Vlad’s, but also those of others in the town, including an immigrant kitchen worker who is the first to recognize the war criminal—masterfully imbuing the novel with texture that complements the complexity of its collision of history and culture.