Book Reviews

 

Edna O'Brien

Little, Brown and Company

 

 

 

One thousand, three hundred and fifty-nine days of [the siege of Sarajevo.] The human spirit is indomitable. Such were the sentiments of outsiders who nevertheless could not imagine the carnage…Since then they had a celebration, a way of remembering, red chairs erected in our beloved city, your jewel as you called it. Yes, eleven thousand, five hundred and forty-one red chairs in commemoration of the fallen. It is said that tourists only begin to cry when they come upon the six hundred and forty-three little red chairs of dead children…

                                    from  The Little Red Chairs

 

Into the quiet Irish village of Cloonoila where nothing much ever happens comes Dr. Vladimir Dragan. Handsome, charismatic, and seductive, he presents himself as a holistic healer, and the townspeople become caught up in his aura and charm and mystery. 

Edna O’Brien has been a highly respected novelist for decades. The author of The Country Girls trilogy and The Love Object, she typically writes about Ireland and the ordinary lives of people living in Irish villages. The Little Red Chairs, her first novel in ten years, is also set in an Irish village, but the book is a departure from the others in its darkness and in its tale of this enthralling, enchanting stranger who comes into their midst.

A number of the village’s women are drawn to “Dr. Vlad;” he seems everything their stable, steady (read: dull) husbands are not. Among them is Fidelma McBride. Beautiful, much younger than her husband, and deeply unsatisfied in her marriage, she falls under the doctor’s spell and intentionally becomes pregnant by him.

Then one of the staff at the local hotel, a young refugee named Mujo, short for Muhammed, recognizes Dragan as the “the beast of Bosnia,” a brutal war criminal who oversaw the ethnic cleansing and mass murder of Muslims, including Mujo’s family, in the war that engulfed Serbia and Bosnia in the nineties. The “holistic healer” is arrested and sent to the Hague to answer for his crimes.

Disgraced and physically as well as emotionally scarred, Fidelma escapes Ireland for London. There she finds a city of refugees, each of them bearing a personal story of horror, putting a human face to genocide (such a bland, bureaucratic word!) defining it in more visceral terms of mob mayhem, slaughter, and acts of unbelievable cruelty. As Fidelma hears these stories, her empathy and understanding increases because now she, too, is a kind of refugee.

O’Brien is in her eighties. In what may be her last work she also offers a cautionary tale for our time: Beware the demagogue, the strong, charismatic leader who can charm people out of their humanity. “You promised the earth, without meaning it. You promised the siege would be lifted, the shelling would stop and food and aid convoys would be allowed in, except none of that happened. It was a lie, but lies can be just as persuasive and palatable as truth in desperate times.”

 


This review first appeared in The Columbia River Reader (August 15-September 14, 2016.) Reprinted with permission.