Edna O’Brien’s 17th novel abounds in surprises: the plot takes unexpected directions, themes advance and then recede, the narrative voice changes in initially disorienting but intriguing ways. What seems at first to be a gothic tale of mystery soon evokes the immigrant experience and then explores the restoration of grace after a fall. Are “repentance and sorrow for sin woven into our DNA,” as one character hopefully suggests? Or has the human species devolved to a state where brutality prevails? O’Brien ties together personal, political and moral considerations as adeptly as becomes a writer of her experience and stature. The Little Red Chairs is an important and urgent novel.
A stranger arrives in the Irish village of Cloonoila, trailing a whiff of folklore with his beard, long black coat and incomprehensible mutterings. To some, he brings to mind “one of those holy men, pilgrims that used to travel around barefoot doing good”; to others, “one of those hags in a fairy tale who steals children and boils them in a big black pot.” Thus O’Brien entices readers with Dr. Vladimir Dragan, who promotes himself as a sexual healer in this conservative, skeptical community.
He assuages the suspicions of the youthful and naive Father Damian by engaging him in dialogue about the differences between the Catholic and Orthodox churches; he overcomes the good Sister Bonaventure’s distrust with a “holistic treatment,” from which she emerges “miraculously energized and rejuvenated.” Before long, he is coaching football, leading adolescents on nature hikes and reading poetry to rapt townswomen. O’Brien capitulates to neither the glib satire nor the bemused condescension these situations may invite; she respects her characters even as they fall under the thrall of this eccentric, alluring visitor.
Because she also respects her readers, O’Brien does not tease Dr. Vlad’s secret for more than a few chapters; roughly 60 pages in, she reveals him to be a war criminal on the run, “the beast of Bosnia,” “the most wanted man in Europe,” guilty of unfathomable atrocities. O’Brien’s interest lies not in how long Dr. Vlad can sustain his deception. It lies instead in the character of Fidelma, who persuades a hesitant Dr. Vlad to help her to conceive in a final attempt at a motherhood she craves. Married to a man a generation older, Fidelma has suffered two miscarriages. If it is true, as O’Brien writes, that the instinct to nurture lies as deep in women as the instinct to kill lies in men, Fidelma, at 40, knows her childbearing days are numbered and so, unaware of the doctor’s history, initiates an affair.
There is nothing sordid in this. Fidelma’s marriage may lack passion, but it is familiar and comfortable, and she is not seeking a way out. For her, the affair, at least at first, is a practical measure—though foolishly, disastrously, she allows long-dormant romantic inclinations to blur her clarity of purpose. For the doctor, relations with Fidelma are simply “a procedure.” Unsurprisingly, word gets out about his identity. Blood-red graffiti appears, incriminating and obscene, and soon the doctor is apprehended and dispatched to The Hague, where a tribunal will indict him for genocide, ethnic cleansing and other war crimes.
The story becomes Fidelma’s alone, and her fall, rehabilitation and redemption form the heart of the novel. A visit from Vlad’s associates plunges her into hell. She is abducted, she supposes to be raped, but O’Brien writes with chilling understatement, “She was wrong.” What ensues is a cruelty that will trouble even those who imagine themselves inured to the violence so prevalent in popular culture. It lasts only a single harrowing paragraph, but the scene is unforgettable because O’Brien’s language is so precise, and her writing is as detached and dispassionate as Fidelma must force herself to be in order to survive her ordeal.
In the novel’s second movement, Fidelma ends up in South London, herself now a mysterious stranger, living among refugees from various forms of oppression—political, economic, religious, social, familial—in an accidental community of immigrants with its own alliances and hostilities. “If, in a multiethnic society, peoples could not live together,” Dr. Vlad says, “surely common sense dictated that they must live apart,” but Fidelma’s new life belies his cynical rationalization. Integration and coexistence progress uneasily, but inevitably. Fidelma takes menial jobs to support herself; she befriends a neighbor’s child; she tends to a rescued greyhound, and, gradually, she restores the humanity her assault had nearly obliterated.
Admirably, and with great discipline, O’Brien renders none of this with the slightest sentimentality; her prose reflects Fidelma’s steely reserve, for the character has been too damaged to allow even a trace of romanticism into her worldview. Central to O’Brien’s purpose is a nuanced, compassionate exploration of the challenges immigrants face, a theme especially resonant in these days of Trump and Brexit. At “The Centre,” these displaced persons “share the stories of their fractured lives.” There are similarities, of course—all these storytellers have been driven to seek asylum far from home—but the particulars of their circumstances differ enough so that these many characters stand as distinct and individualized, all worthy, perhaps, of novels of their own. Eventually, Fidelma becomes a caretaker at the home of a decent, tragic widower who, for a time, “softens the stone in her heart.” But then Part Two ends and O’Brien changes course once more.
In the novel’s final, briefest section, Fidelma undertakes a journey that at first strains credibility—why on earth would she do this?—but then seems exactly appropriate, essential and right, illuminating the observation that “Everything...is political. The bread you eat, the water you drink, the mattress you lie down on.” Fidelma: the name suggests she is faithful, but faithful to what, exactly? To her own harsh experience? To endurance? To full and vital participation in the human race? As she masterfully tells Fidelma’s story, O’Brien conveys her own outrage over history and her trepidation about our world. But Fidelma’s resilience and strength ultimately turn The Little Red Chairs into an affecting novel of hope.