Dalarna University, Sweden
by Irene Gilsenan Nordin. This text may be archived and redistributed both in electronic form and in hard copy, provided that the author and journal are properly cited and no fee is charged for access.
London: Faber & Faber, 2015
299 pages. €14.99. Paperback
Edna O’Brien’s latest book, her first novel in a decade, is a compelling account of love, intrigue, evil and violence. It tells the story of what happens in a rural Irish setting, the village of Cloonoila, when a fascinating stranger, charismatic and charming, who turns out to be a fugitive war criminal from the Balkans masquerading as a faith healer, arrives on the scene. In the very first lines of the novel, the reader is introduced to the mood of dark foreboding that gives the novel its intriguing momentum with the description of the river that flows through the quiet hamlet, a recurrent metaphor of the force of nature that runs throughout the novel: “the current, swift and dangerous, surges with a manic glee, chunks of wood and logs of ice borne along in its trail.” It is a cold winter’s evening, with the melting ice drips, icicles, “bluish in that frosted night” (3), and the stranger, “bearded and in a long dark coat and white gloves,” stands mesmerised looking down into the roaring current. He subsequently enters the village pub, where he introduces himself as Dr Vladimir Dragan, “Healer and Sex Therapist” from Montenegro, and tells the barman, “A woman brought me here.” Word soon spreads of the mysterious newcomer who arouses great interest, and many of the inhabitants fall under his spell: Dara, the young barman with “the hair spiked and plastered with gel” (4); Mona, the owner of the pub, longing for a bit of romance (13); Dante, the bodhran player; and Fifi, the lonely widow, “‘a dried-up old bird’ from all that sunshine in Australia” (15). The young priest, Fr Damien, in brown sandals and cassock, new to the parish, having been recalled home suddenly from his work in the slums of Leeds and Manchester, to minister to the spiritual needs of the inhabitants of Cloonoila, expresses the existential longing on the part of his new parishioners: “many feel a vacuum in their lives . . . marriages losing their mojo . . . internet dating . . . nudity . . . hedonism . . .” (25). This is a longing that the stranger soon sets about fulfilling.
The character of “Dr Vlad,” or Vlad, as he is later called, has close parallels with the story of the “Butcher of Bosnia”, Radovan Karadzic, who in 2008 was finally arrested for his war crimes, having been hiding in Belgrade and Vienna, specialising in alternative medicine and psychology. Transported into an Irish – very typical O’Brien – landscape, “Dr Vlad” opens his clinic, “Holistic Healing in Eastern and Western Disciplines,” without fanfare, and certainly no photographs, since – as he explains – a person’s soul is stolen by the influence of a camera. His first client is the charity-worker, Sister Bonaventure, brave enough to be his guinea pig, since she is a sixty year-old nun and “has no fear of the doctor and his Latin charm.” But, on leaving his treatment room, her energy has become “prodigal,” and she is overcome by “a wildness such as she had not known since her youth” (37). “Dr Vlad’s” name is soon on everybody’s lips, with wonders being worked, and “women claiming to be rejuvenated, just after two treatments” (75). But the character most profoundly affected by him is the draper’s wife, the beautiful Fidelma McBride, just turned forty, with a husband now in his sixties, who no longer is the “‘Brooding Heathcliff’ that used to sign birthday cards to her” (41). Fidelma is a typical O’Brien protagonist, dreaming of horizons beyond reach, and having been pregnant twice in her married life and “lost it both times,” she is childless and bored with the tedium of her existence – “the same routine, the same longing, and the same loneliness” (42). In powerful and evocative prose, O’Brien recounts the tragic outcome of the relationship between Vlad and Fidelma, who falls in love with the healer and persuades him to father a child with her, the consequences of which force her to leave Cloonoila and head as an immigrant for London.
The setting of the novel is contemporary, with a multitude of migrant voices, first in Cloonoila, from the kitchen staff at the Castle Hotel – Burmese, Italian, Spanish, Czech, Slovakian, Polish and Lithuanian – as they gather on the veranda for a beer and a smoke after their day’s work, telling each other stories in halting English of their fractured and transitory lives. Migrant voices abound also in London, in Part Two of the novel, where Fidelma finds herself homeless and without work. Through a charity organisation she finds a place to live with Jasmeen, an African migrant, who has a soft spot for the Irish since she was once helped by an Irish woman on her arrival in a cold and lonely London. Fidelma finds work as a cleaner, working with other migrants, many of whom have fled horror, “countries they could never go back to, while still others yearned for home” (176), all with memories carried with them from the places they have been forced to leave for various reasons. Fidelma’s consoling memory from her homeland is of “young grass with the morning sun on it and the night’s dew, so that light and water interplayed as in a prism and the top leaves of an ash tree had a halo of diamond from the rain, the surrounding green so safe, so ample, so all-encompassing” (176).
Landscape plays an important part in the novel, and O’Brien’s powerful and evocative prose convincingly links her characters with their surroundings, both urban and rural. Intriguingly interwoven into the narrative are sharp and astonishing moments of contrast, from flashes of humour in the dialogue exchanges between the characters, to evocations of innocence and beauty in the lush poetic descriptions of nature, as in the image of the white mist, which, “like a winding muslin, enfolds our part of the world from time to time” (76), or of the mist lifting, “bits of it flying around in shreds, and the rest vanishing, as if one of those big forks, that they lift earth with, was gobbling it up” (78). Contrasted with the peaceful scenes of harmony and plenitude are some shocking passages of cruelty and violence; not the least of these is the horrific scene where Fidelma has been badly beaten and left to die. This is done by the “blood brothers,” who come looking for Vlad in Part One of the novel, before she is forced to leave her husband and her home; she “hears the car drive away and all is quiet for a short time and then the scurries, rats come to sup and she can hear their tongues lapping up the pools of warm blood” (146).
The title of the novel refers to the 11,541 red chairs erected in the city of Sarajevo in 2012, twenty years after the outbreak of the Bosnian war, in honour of the people killed during the bloody conflict. The Little Red Chairs takes its name from the six hundred and forty-three little red chairs representing the children slain in the conflict. The novel is a stark testament to the need for accountability and the telling of a story, but it also pays homage to those resilient and courageous characters, who in spite of all the odds manage to survive. Fidelma is a survivor, and in following her odyssey the reader is swept forward in a powerful narrative that suggests that amidst all the fragmentation and loss, suffering and evils of existence, forgiveness, reconciliation and hope can somehow be found.