You may well know that Edna O’Brien’s umpteenth book, The Little Red Chairs, takes a moment from history as its jumping off point, specifically what former Serbian politician and now convicted war criminal Radovan Karadžić did between the end of the Bosnian conflict in 1995 and his being arrested in Belgrade in 1998. In reality, Karadžić worked at an alternative medicine clinic in Belgrade; in The Little Red Chairs, he turns up and practices healing and sex therapy in a small Irish town called Cloonoila. Not that Karadžić is called Karadžić in The Little Red Chairs, of course. Here he is known as Dr Vladimir Dragan (not a pseudonym Karadžić himself used – he posed, rather uninspiringly, as DD David – although Karadžić’s nephew is called Dragan) and from the get-go, he creates an exotic stir in what is already something of a diverse population (a nearby hotel is staffed by people from all over the world).
It’s worthwhile noting, before we get good and stuck into the review proper, that the writing in The Little Red Chairs, is sumptuous, as beautiful as perfectly ripe fruit, liable to leave juice running down your chin as you read. Here is a short excerpt from the opening as Vlad arrives in Cloonoila:
“The town takes its name from the river. The current, swift and dangerous, surges with a manic glee, chunks of wood and logs of ice borne along in its trail. In the small sidings where water is trapped, stones, blue, black and purple, shine up out of the river bed, perfectly smoothed and rounded and it is as though seeing a clutch of good-sized eggs in a bucket of water. The noise is deafening.”
If you read, as I did, and found yourself transported to this place, you’ll enjoy what follows immensely. Part of the pleasure of the book is to be found in Edna O’Brien’s sentences. She is a writer of prodigious talents. But there are other pleasures too, not least the fact that the book doesn’t always travel in the directions you’d expect. To begin with, I must admit I wondered whether this would be a slightly wry comedy (a war criminal! in a small Irish town!); in fact, were one to look to reduce it to its barest bones, it’s actually a kind of love story (in, say, as much as The Remains of the Day is a kind of love story, or The Book of Strange New Things). A great many of the women in Cloonoila take a shine to Vlad but it is Fidelma who falls.
Fidelma once ran a clothing shop that attracted positive press from as far afield as Dublin, only for the fortunes of her shop to run aground when a motorway diverts tourists. She hides bills and keeps ruin secret from her husband Jack until it is much too late. Fidelma sees in Vlad a man who would possibly give her a baby, something that would restore order to her life and give her what her husband refuses to. Their relationship begins when Vlad looks to rent the shop they still own and largely comes to an end when someone spray paints, “Where wolves fuck” on the pavement outside the premises in question. But there are other stories here, too. Mujo, for instance, a semi-mute (in that he can talk but largely chooses not to) who works in the hotel, recognises the Butcher of Bosnia (O’Brien does use Karadžić’s soubriquet) and fights him in the middle of a nun’s birthday party (there is wry comedy here after all). There is Bluey who looks after a cadre of cleaners at a bank in London where Fidelma eventually goes to work. A lonely widower called James who befriends her when she is down on her luck. Fifi, landlady who recognises a good mystic when she sees one. Mistletoe, a child. Jack, her husband. Vlad, of course. Mona. Sister Bonaventure. The book teems with life and does a great job of harnessing the different sorts of people who could rub shoulders on any high street in almost any part of the world right now.
Like a lot of literary novels, events jump and stagger as we move from perspective to perspective; it’s linear but not moment to moment linear. Unlike a lot of literary novels, large pivotal events happen in the here and now, not just remembered many years previous (there is an act of startling brutality here but there are also crises, large and small, marriages end, people die). Just about the only thing that rang slightly hollow was the climax which draws on a production of Midsummer Night’s Dream to realise multicultural harmony. I may not have seen or read this elsewhere a dozen times but I felt like I had. This is a minor point and actually given the state of the world – or at least the state of the UK at the moment where violent racism seems to throb from every corner – it feels like a strong good thing to have a writer offer both sympathy and hope for a better world.
Any Cop?: For my sins, this is the first Edna O’Brien novel I’ve read; it wont be the last.