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Edna O'Brien's The Little Red Chairs

Books & Poetry

Irish author Edna O’Brien’s first novel in a decade, 60 years after her debut, is a chilling reflection on redemption, hope and evil.

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Centred on the theme of genocide, The Little Red Chairs is tied to the siege of Sarajevo. In April 2012, to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the start of the attack by Bosnian Serb forces, 11,541 red chairs were placed in Sarajevo’s main street for every Sarajevan killed during the siege; 643 of these were smaller chairs, representing the children killed.

The Little Red Chairs begins when a wanted Balkan war criminal, disguised as a faith healer, settles in a small west-coast Irish village. There are parallels here with the “Butcher of Bosnia”, Radovan Karadžić, but the novel’s strength is not contingent upon them.

With his white hair and beard, white gloves and long black coat, “Doctor Vlad” is an enigma to the locals. However, he soon has many of the village women under his spell. One of them, Fidelma, suffocating in an unhappy, childless marriage, begs him to give her a baby. This fatal attraction and its consequences are the basis of the novel.

The Little Red Chairs is a story that addresses some of the darkest moral issues of our times.

O’Brien’s talent lies in juxtaposing these exquisitely worded atrocities with the humanity that, at times, underlies them. But some of the characters are mundane and superfluous, riding on a narrative and dialogue that occasionally seem unconvincing.

The pace builds through the novel, and the effect in parts one and two is cumulative and powerful. Unfortunately the last section, playing on A Midsummer Night’s Dream, becomes overly constructed, as the plot plods to an unsatisfying halt – one that even the Bard might well have found a trifle too much.

The Little Red Chairs, by Edna O’Brien, published by Allen & Unwin, $29.99.

The Little Red Chairs, by Edna O’Brien, published by Allen & Unwin, $29.99.

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