Fidelma McBride, a beautiful forty-year-old woman, lives in a small Irish village. Having experienced two miscarriages, she now feels trapped in a stale marriage to her faithful, much older husband. Enter Vlad, a mysterious older gentleman with a commanding presence. His recent move into their sleepy village has brought up a flurry of gossip. Vlad is Eastern European, handsome, educated, and well-traveled. He’s a healer of some sort, specializing in Eastern medicine, and it isn’t long before he starts winning people over…especially the women.
Partly because she desperately wants a baby, and partly out of curiosity, Fidelma approaches the good doctor about helping her get pregnant. Before long, the two are having an affair. But just as quickly as it begins, it is over. Vlad is recognized by someone who escaped his cruelty long ago, and finally the truth comes to light: he isn’t Vlad at all, but a man on the run who is wanted for war crimes in Sarajevo. He is arrested and taken to the Hague, and Fidelma pays a heavy price as well. Broken and shunned, she has no choice but to leave everything in Ireland and flee to the anonymity of London, where she finds herself surrounded by immigrants and refugees, themselves often fleeing horrific pasts.
In terms of timing, Edna O’Brien couldn’t have had a better one for the publication of her book. The title refers to a memorial in 2012 that commemorated the twentieth anniversary of what happened in Sarajevo. 11,541 red chairs were set up on the main street, one for each victim of the siege. 643 of those chairs were child-sized, in memory of the children who were killed. It’s an image from recent memory that still resonates:
And just days before this book’s publication, Radovan Karadzic, the “Butcher of Bosnia,” was sentenced to 40 years in prison by the Hague for crimes of genocide. One can’t get more timely than that.
I was immediately intrigued by the premise of the book and pre-ordered the audiobook. The book starts out strong — everything I mentioned earlier all happens in Part I — and I immediately felt drawn into Fidelma’s consciousness. This section of the book is intense, building up to Vlad’s arrest and Fidelma’s horrific downfall. I’ve read some messed up stuff in my day, but some of the scenes in Part I still give me chills.
Unfortunately, that was the high point. Part II, when Fidelma flees to England, becomes a muddled mess. Refugee narratives take over at times, and though they help Fidelma realize that some people have had it much worse, I didn’t see the point of going that route. Finally, Part III — the Hague trial, where Fidelma finally has the chance to face the man who ruined her life — should have (and could have) been the high point. Instead, I frequently found myself wondering aloud, “What is going on?” I mean…just because Fidelma was such a mess didn’t mean the book itself had to be.
This was my first time reading Edna O’Brien. It will not be my last; there were enough parts in the book that made me see why she has a devoted fan base. But ultimately, even Juliet Stevenson’s lovely narration, with her impressive arsenal of different accents, could not save the story for me.
The Little Red Chairs was released on March 29, 2016 by Little Brown and Company.