The Little Red Chairs, by Edna O’Brien

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The Little Red Chairs

There are people who deserve second changes and others who very much do not. Edna O’Brien shows us both in The Little Red Chairs. As the novel opens, a man has come to the village of Cloonoila, Ireland, to open a New Age clinic. No one knows much about his past, but his charm opens doors everywhere—at least until the truth about his past gets out. When the metaphorical doors close, Fidelma gets caught out in the cold because she had the misfortune to fall in with with the charming man.

The title of the book comes from the Sarajvo Red Line, a commemoration for all the people who were killed during the siege between 1992 and 1996. The so-charming man who ruins Fidelma’s life is based on Radovan Karadžić, a real-life war criminal who was recently sentenced to forty years in prison by the International Criminal Court. Like Karadžić, Dr. Dragan reinvented himself as a healer. He reminds me strongly of Rasputin, though I know Dragan is taken from life. Dragan is awfully good at spinning bullshit and having people believe him. He’s just so very charming, at least until his façade cracks and we see the megalomaniac underneath.

We never get inside Dragan’s head; we only see him through the eyes of others. In the first half of The Little Red Chairs, our “narrator” is a chorus of voices—sometimes individuals and sometimes the collective conscious of Cloonoila—who eagerly gossip about the mysterious doctor as well as everyone’s business. We don’t learn much about Fidelma until Dragan has settled in somewhat. Fidelma is the much younger wife of Jack and very much wants a child. Nothing has worked. When she falls under the doctor’s spell, she convinces him to sleep with her so that she can get pregnant. Ten weeks into the pregnancy, Dragan’s cover is blown and something truly terrible happens to Fidelma and her child.

In the second half of the book, the story’s focus settles on Fidelma and her new life in London. She has left Cloonoila because she can’t bear to be around people who know of her attachment to Dragan and because of the terrible thing. She is tainted by association, she believes. So she resettles among London’s immigrant population, scrounging a scant living and hiding more than anything else. No one ever says it out loud in the second half, but Fidelma is in desperate need of a second chance.

Curiously, where many novels emphasize the connections between characters—however tangential—this book reinforces the isolation of its characters from each other. Everyone is living out their own tales. Even when we hear from the Cloonoila collective, no one appears to be strongly attached to anyone else. (At least, not the living. More than one character has a deep connection to a ghost.) The constant background stories just reinforce the individuality of each character. When Fidelma moves to London and attends group sessions with immigrants and political refugees, every story is unique and none of the characters is able to sympathize with anyone else, they are so wounded.

The Little Red Chairs was nothing like I expected. I had only read a few reviews and the inside jacket copy. In retrospect, I wish I had gone into this book blind. I focused too much on Dragan in the beginning before realizing that this was a story about the lives he touched after he landed in Ireland and how war crimes taint even the innocent by association. The more I read, I saw that the book was more about characters who get stuck by the worst thing that ever happened to them. This is not a book about moving on.

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