The Little Red Chairs-Edna O’Brien

‘Edna O’Brien was the first Irish woman to have sex,’ says Anne Enright in her Guardian review of O’Brien’s 2011 novel, The Light of Evening. She goes on to say for Irish women of that time, 1960, sex was mostly about having children.

I remember loving The Country Girls when I stumbled upon it, but it caused a furore in Ireland. It was burned in Limerick, then it was banned, and various archbishops deemed it filth. Her own mother felt obliged to black out all the rude words and kept the book in an outhouse. Such shame. Male writers damned her characters, Kate and Baba, and L P Hartley deemed them nymphomaniacs. But for most women the yearning of young women to be with men, and the manifest inadequacy of those men, rang true.
Since The Country Girls O’Brien has written many books; novels, short stories, non-fiction and a memoir, but from 1994 her novels followed a new path, in that they took real events, often political, as their jumping off points. House of Splendid Isolation is about an Irish terrorist on the run, Down by the River is based on the actual rape of an under-age girl and her struggle to have an abortion in England, and In the Forest, is the story of the abduction and murder of a woman, her three year old child, and a priest.
Her latest book, The Little Red Chairs takes its title from an event on April 2012, when, in commemoration of the beginning of the Siege of Sarajevo, 11,541 red chairs were laid out in rows in the streets in memory of those killed. 643 small chairs represented children killed.
The story begins with a stranger arriving at night in the village of Cloonoila. There he stands in his long dark coat and white gloves looking down at the roaring river, but soon he is welcomed in to the warmth of the pub by Dara, the barman.
Dara tells his own story and soon the stranger begins to talk about his life in Montenegro, he tells the story of Siddhartha and then at last reveals his name and business there. His card spells it out, he is Dr Vladimir Dragan and after a list of degrees he describes his vocation, Healer and Sex Therapist.
Now we see how the Doctor ingratiates himself with the people of the village. He is a brilliant therapist, giving what sounds like tantric massage, and is soon persuaded by the local priest (at the prompting of his bishop) to remove the words Sex Therapist from his card.
Fidelma, twenty years younger than her husband, and still yearning for a child, finds herself drawn to the Doctor, then physically attracted and finally persuades him to have a assignation with her, in hopes a child may be conceived and because, now, she is obsessed with him.
This section in Cloonoila is full of hope and lyricism. It is even very funny. Thus the Book Group with the Naublers who only come to heckle, and their reaction to old Bridget’s reverent reading from her wheelchair, of Dido from the Aeneid IV
… lying still under the quiet night in sleep that smoothed each care from hearts…But not so the Phoenician queen, her accursed spirit, her torment doubled, her love came back again and again to haunt her.
‘Feck’ was the first word, followed by a slew of fecks and it set the tone for the invective that was to follow.
‘Pissed me off it did.’
‘Nothing to do with our lives…’
‘Exactly Moira…there’s homeless people… there’s single mothers…

We see Irish people in all their variety and gradually the scope widens out from the village to include the multicultural mingling that is the staff of the big hotel, and it is from here Vlad’s fate is sealed. On one harmless day he is out with the villagers on an outing to Ben Bulben. A day of true Irish beauty.
Further on ash trees grew in little clumps, and the sun slanted through the window creating different moments of light and shadow, the same sunlight that sent dimples of gold into the pools of rainwater that had lodged in the fields from a downpour the previous evening.
Then two unknown men step forward and very smoothly take Vlad and put him into heavy metal handcuffs.
The story moves away from Cloonoila, and dark and violence now drive the narrative.
From now on the story is mainly concerned with Fidelma, her terrible sufferings and her guilt, her struggle to free herself from hate. The second half of the book could not be more different from the first. Enough to say Fidelma meets both kindness and treachery and is tested to the limit.
Vlad has a public trial and is found guilty of crimes against humanity. I’ll leave you to guess who he is based on (not very difficult.)
This is a stunning book and makes me wonder why I have neglected Edna O’Brien’s writing over the last twenty years. The first book I will be seeking out is her memoir Country Girl.
O’Brien is eighty-six now to Anne Enright’s fifty-four. I would say Enright owes a lot to O’Brien in her topics and writing about Ireland. But for me O’Brien is the greater writer, with a wider range, and fearless in her exploration of the depths of the human heart.
As Andrew O’ Hagan says about her,
She changed the face of Irish fiction; she brought women’s experience of sex, (and their) internal lives to the fore … she did it with style, and she made these concerns international.

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5 thoughts on “The Little Red Chairs-Edna O’Brien

  1. A friend read this recently and was very impressed by it too. I have to be in the right mood for Irish literature, but I would like to read The Country Girls at some point. My mother was still living in Ireland at the time of its publication, and I can remember her talking about the scandal it caused…

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  2. But when you look back now at the staggering hypocrisy, and betrayal of children by clergy at that time, the book seems quite innocent. I note that a fairly recent novel by O’Brien, The Light of Evening, has as its theme the difficult relationship between an older mother and her daughter after the daughter has written a scandalous book. I think the reception of The Country Girls scarred Edna O’Brien.

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