The Little Red Chairs – Edna O’Brien (Little, Brown and Company, 2016)
This isn’t a book review for the simple fact that I didn’t finish reading this book. About halfway through, the main character is the victim of an act of horrific violence and I just couldn’t continue. I’ve never read Edna O’Brien before so I have no idea if this, her first novel in years, is typical of her writing. Up until that point the book was okay, though not without its frustrations, and I was hoping it would redeem itself as it continued. I can’t imagine it gets much more upsetting after this plot turn but I found I couldn’t continue and keep reading more mentions of it.
So here’s what I can comment on.
The initial premise of the novel is an intriguing one. Set in a small Irish town, a mysterious and enigmatic man calling himself a healer arrives and sets up shop. Although the townspeople are somewhat suspicious, they are fascinated by him and many find themselves drawn to him. One of these is Fidelma, a young (I think? Her age was never quite clear to me), married woman who longs to have a child. For no discernible reason, she falls in love with him. O’Brien seems to want us to see Vlad, the healer, as a charismatic man who others are curious about and who Fidelma would fall in love with (even though he really isn’t kind or affectionate to her at all). Honestly, I found him creepy. There was nothing about him that made me understand why anyone would want to be around him. This feeling certainly wasn’t helped by the early reveal that he is a mass murderer, and a war criminal – on the run from international law due to his role in the siege of Sarajevo. The townspeople find this out soon after, along with Fidelma.
The setting of the novel feels like it’s in the early half of the 20th century and it was hard to get a handle on how modern the village was but based on when the siege took place and how much time is supposed to have past, I have to guess it’s supposed to be a modern day setting. If it weren’t for those historical clues though, I don’t think I would have figured that out at all.
Over and over, Fidelma makes terrible, naive decisions that are frustrating to follow along with and when one (or many, depending on how you look at it) of those choices results in something horrible happening to her, it was just too much for me. Reading a few reviews around the internet, it seemed that the second half wouldn’t redeem the first for me and so I gave it up.
Edna O’Brien is, of course, very famous and there are some excellent passages in the parts of the novel I did read. I would simply say that if you do read this one, proceed with caution.