The Little Red Chairs by Edna O’Brien


Summary from Goodreads:

Vlad, a stranger from Eastern Europe masquerading as a healer, settles in a small Irish village where the locals fall under his spell. One woman, Fidelma McBride, becomes so enamoured that she begs him for a child. All that world is shattered when Vlad is arrested, and his identity as a war criminal is revealed.

Fidelma, disgraced, flees to England and seeks work among the other migrants displaced by wars and persecution. But it is not until she confronts him-her nemesis-at the tribunal in The Hague, that her physical and emotional journey reaches its breathtaking climax.

The blurb for this one makes it sound more than a little ridiculous (and in some regards it is a bit unbelievable) but that is not the tone for this one at all. It’s dark, deeply troubling, and politically engaged. SERIOUS TRIGGER WARNING FOR THIS ONE. Aspects of this book are about war and persecution, especially its effects on women, and it doesn’t shy away from the graphic. There is one scene in particular that left me pretty shaken up and horrified. Be safe readers. Don’t expose yourself to anything that could be harmful.

Moving on, there is no denying that O’Brien’s writing is powerful and confronting. Even though this story doesn’t take place in a war zone, reverberations of violence sound throughout. Quite a few chapters are given over to cameo characters who give heart-wrenching accounts of their experiences in their war-torn homelands. It reminded me a bit of Rachel Cusk’s work – in form if not in content.A very timely read considering Syria and the refugee crisis. There’s a strange juxtaposition – especially in the second half of the book where Fidelma is in London – of the mundane and the horrific. The Irish housewife who finds herself the victim of a war taking place across the continent and is struggling to deal with the aftermath:

I hate him, I want to inflict every punishment on him, including taking his voice, his voice box out, and strangling it syllable by syllable. I want the three men pulped, I hate myself and my own body, I think only violence will end the violence. This hate fills my heart, my soul and my being. When I menstruate I want to wipe my face in it, to add to the defilement. You see, I have lost all connection between what is natural and what is unnatural. I hear stories of the other women in that room, fates far harder than mine, excruciating, and I am moved, but I am not moved enough to stamp out the hate that is strangling me. (page 217) 

It’s hard to encapsulate just how much goes on in this story – I’m finding myself still thinking about it weeks after finishing it. My review really doesn’t do it justice.

This was my first novel by her and it won’t be my last.

2 thoughts on “The Little Red Chairs by Edna O’Brien

  1. I read this earlier this year and also had a hard time figuring out what to say about it. Obviously, I had a VERY SERIOUS trigger warning, because holy shit, but in the end I summarized my feelings about it thusly:

    “It’s hard, considering the subject matter, to say, “Man, I loved this book!” because I can’t imagine reading this book and feeling joyful or happy about it. That said, this book was extremely successful. It rocked me. It made me think about things in a different way. It was affecting. It will stay with me.”


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