Edna O’Brien’s first novel in a decade already hailed a masterpiece

by John Boland

Fiction: The Little Red Chairs, Edna O’Brien, Faber&Faber tpbk, 320 pages, €18.99

International war criminals, London-based refugees and a brutalised Irish woman are at the centre of this ambitious novel, about which Philip Roth has declared: “The great Edna O’Brien has written her masterpiece”.

Endorsements don’t come more impressive than that, but then the 82-year-old American novelist has long been an admirer of his 84-year-old Irish counterpart, previously describing her as “the most gifted woman now writing in English”.

Not everyone has been so laudatory, not least the Irish censorship board, which more than five decades ago banned her ebullient and semi-autobiographical early novels – The Country Girl, Girl with Green Eyes, Girls in Their Married Bliss – about a young woman from rural Ireland making her way in the world.

Also not approving was that era’s largely male Irish literary establishment, which clearly resented this supposed smut monger’s status in the England of her voluntary exile, where she became a Swinging Sixties media darling, as famous for her looks and charm as for her books.

Indeed, many of her early Irish critics chose to equate her media reputation with a lack of serious literary intent, as if someone so personally glamorous and with such a headline-grabbing back story (including marriage to a balefully resentful older writer whom she then left) couldn’t possibly create anything worthwhile.

And although she has now attained the status of grand old lady of Irish letters, it’s sobering to note that she has seldom found favour among the givers of awards – with more than 20 novels to her name, she has never won or even been short-listed for the Booker, Costa or any of the other main literary prizes.

And even in recent times, she’s had her detractors, not all of them male – Zoe Heller deriding “the overblown, fey-cum-corny prose style that Edna O’Brien has made her own”; Joan Smith criticising her “characteristic mawkishness” and “fatal humourlessness”; and Hilary Mantel asserting that she writes “orgy prose, dripping and rich and fantastic”.

Nor have her more recent subjects endeared her to everyone. House of Splendid Isolation (1994) outraged right-wing British commentators for its sympathetic treatment of an IRA terrorist on the run, while some Irish pundits took issue with her fictionalising of the X case in Down by the River (1996) and of the murders by Brendan O’Donnell in her native Co Clare that are the basis of In the Forest (2002).

Real-life events also underpin The Little Red Chairs, which is O’Brien’s first novel in nine years and which takes its title from the 643 small chairs that were set out in rows at a 2012 ceremony in Sarajevo to commemorate the 643 children killed by snipers and heavy artillery during the 1,425 days of that city’s dreadful siege in the early 1990s.

The story’s main character, though, is Fidelma, a 39-year-old woman in a fictional west of Ireland town near Sligo, who’s married to a much older local trader and who falls under the spell of a recently arrived mysterious stranger.

He calls himself Vlad, describes himself as a faith healer and sets up a clinic in the town. Before long, and at her request, he has impregnated Fidelma, who has always wanted a child, but he is subsequently arrested as a Serbian war criminal and taken to the Hague, where he is to answer for his crimes.

This “beast of Bosnia” is not hard for the reader to identify, as he shares most of the characteristics of former Serbian leader Radovan Karadzic, including the Montenegran birth, the poetry, the training in psychiatry and the ordering of atrocities in Sarajevo and Srebrenica.

Up to the point of his capture, the book is largely engrossing, though the reader may wonder at a priest in contemporary Ireland insisting that chastity is “our number one commandment” and at Fidelma’s reading of such forgotten Catholic writers as Bernanos and Mauriac.

But the story lurches into the incredible when, after Vlad’s arrest, Fidelma, in plain view of her husband, agrees to get into a taxi with three sinister East European strangers who call at her door and then take her to a remote hut, where she is violently defiled with a crowbar. This is a horrific, indeed plain horrible, scene and would have worked if Fidelma had been surreptitiously bundled into the car at dead of night, but as presented here the set-up makes no sense.

Nor is it explained why this vile assault isn’t reported to the gardai or indeed what if anything becomes of her assailants, former colleagues of Vlad who had turned against him. Instead, the shamed and publicly disgraced Fidelma flees to London, where she seeks any employment she can find and lives in a succession of temporary dwellings.

This is where the book is at its finest, O’Brien evoking with imaginative empathy the shadowy and fragile existence of the refugees and migrants with whom Fidelma comes in contact. The urban underworld conjured up in these hundred pages is wholly persuasive, with Fidelma facing up to the plight of people about whose fraught lives she had previously known nothing.

However, the book then moves less convincingly to the Netherlands where Fidelma confronts her now imprisoned former lover, who remains defiantly in denial about his monstrous past. This involves a good deal of tedious ranting by the unrepentant Vlad and also to a scene where she’s treated with baffling hostility by his prison guards. And although the final chapter, in which she returns to the London of her refugee friends, aims at a redemptive tone, its effect is somewhat vague and muffled.

And stylistically the book is odd, with tenses constantly changing, sometimes from one sentence to the next, and with commas so arbitrarily used or discarded that the reader is sometimes left feeling confused about what’s being described.

O’Brien has taken on big issues in this new book and indeed it’s arguable that she has taken on too much – certainly the war criminal strand sits uneasily alongside the refugee storyline, which is so absorbing that readers may well feel it merited a novel of its own.

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