Allen & Unwin
Firstly allow me to apologise for being spotty this past month. NaNo, family engagements and now illness have quashed my ability to write all that much of anything that was not my current novel project, or indeed anything at all since the start of December. Distressing. But let us set that aside, because the novel I’m reviewing this week, The Little Red Chairs is a fair bit more distressing, since it deals with the aftermath of the Bosnian War and genocide.
So there is another reason it has taken me so long to construct a review; the novel is difficult to encapsulate. It is also a difficult book to read when one is in the habit of reading as I do, largely on the run. That is, on my morning commute and, more rarely, during my afternoon one, and occasionally for a few minutes at lunch, and on weekends, and generally a chapter or two before bed. I rarely have the indulgence of sitting down and just reading a book for long stretches of time. This is a shame because The Little Red Chairs is needing, and rewarding, of that kind of attention. It needs to be dived into.
Edna O’Brien is an extremely accomplished writer with a long career. The Little Red Chairs was a hugely anticipated book in the literary community. Though I’ve not read any of her works before, it quickly became apparent why. The novel covers the wealth and breadth of life, and once heartbreaking and uplifting, and achieves what all good literature sets out to do: it reveals something to the reader about the human experience.
It starts as a stranger arrives in a small coastal town, who is eventually revealed to be a wanted war criminal but who is, for the moment, a faith healer. Local woman Fidelma is drawn to his promises of helping her with her fertility issues. The consequences of his deception on the town and of his past crimes quickly become apparent.
O’Brien explores regret, trauma both personal and cultural, guilt and remorselessness. She uses delicately crafted vignettes, character studies really, to populate the town with sharply believable characters. There is wit and there is damage, frequently in the same paragraph. The tender process of recovery is intimately detailed.
Literary fiction fans will find a lot to love in The Little Red Chairs. I only regret that my first read was done in such haste.