Edna O’Brien: The Little Red Chairs

At the start of Edna O'Brien's authoritative and engrossing new novel, a stranger arrives in a small Irish village, a man from God knows where (actually, Montenegro), white-haired, bearded, in a long dark coat, trailing danger and disruption in his wake, despite his apparently benign professions of faith healer and poet. Both of these callings he intends to put into practice in backwaterish Irish Cloonoila (Cloonoila, which may be translated as "the blemished meadow"). A mythic resonance is immediately set up, tempered by sidelights into the ordinary lives of the ordinary inhabitants of the town: Dara with his hair plastered with gel, Mona the owner of the pub where Dara works, Dante who plays the bodhran, Father Damien in his brown priest's sandals, Bonaventure the modern nun. And the town beauty Fidelma McBride, not very happily married, desperate for a child after two miscarriages, and suddenly, overwhelmingly captivated by the mysterious stranger.

Before long it is clear that the stranger – Dr Vladimir Dragan as he calls himself – is very closely based on Radovan Karadzic, "the Butcher of Bosnia", who lived as a fugitive for 12 years under the name of Dr Dragan David Dabic, before being captured in Belgrade in 2008, charged with war crimes and taken to The Hague. The points of resemblance are very striking, even without the name "Dragan" to furnish a clue. Both are poets, specialists in alternative medicine, philosophers and exterminators. In the novel, we're invited to ponder the coexistence in a single individual of healing and decimating impulses. (Edna O'Brien's title refers to the 11,541 empty red chairs set out in Sarajevo to commemorate victims of the siege by Bosnian Serb forces in the early 1990s. Six hundred and forty-three of the smaller chairs in the sombre tableau were dedicated to children killed at the time.)

In the hands of the adept storyteller, the fictional overlay takes on an intriguing momentum of its own. The novel enables you to imagine Dr Dragan being welcomed by the people of Cloonoila, before retribution overtakes him on a bus travelling towards Ben Bulben – and before excruciating horror overtakes O'Brien's susceptible protagonist, Fidelma McBride. Cloonoila, no longer a place of "primal innocence", has succumbed to contamination from the outside world; and Fidelma, having suffered the most agonising of all imaginable violations, flees her unsavoury, bat-murdering husband and, like many another Irish heroine, makes tracks for London and a hand-to-mouth existence. What follows is an odyssey alongside ever more contemporary varieties of degradation, deracination, dereliction and unexpected pockets of consolation. For all its confrontations with calamity and upheaval, The Little Red Chairs is neither grim nor fraught with despair. It is filled, on the contrary, with a narrative energy and aplomb.

At one level, it's a book about the power of the story: it gives a voice to many of the dispossessed, refugees from countries wrecked by war, night cleaners, victims of female circumcision, of ethnic cleansing, of forced conscription. Invited into the narrative at intervals to recount their terrible experiences, the supplementary storytellers in Edna O'Brien's new novel provide an extended catalogue of atrocities, battles and massacres, razed homes and devastated lives. The telling, however, makes for all of them a way of affirming their identity, and of boosting their entitlement to a place in the world.

The Little Red Chairs is also a novel of contrasts. There's a ceremonious seduction scene in part one, in which Heart of Darkness images give way to a kind of Yeatsian grace and transcendence. All the details, the French windows opening on to a garden with cedar trees, a jug of yellow roses, soaps and talcum powders in the opulent bathroom, the wine and the bread, contribute to a sense of felicity and anticipation, to set against rumours of carnage and coercion. We might be reminded of 18th-century Gaelic poems of abundance, meadows full of flowers, bursting trout streams, trees laden with blossom, all kinds of mellow fruitfulness and bounty. The beauty of the world – and then its savagery. Every event in the novel, though, whether lacerating or lyrically framed, has its surround of landscape features, country or city, all richly evoked: "the apple trees, the ruins of the cottages and the wood where the little birches had withstood the ravages of many winters"; "the sad debris of the night, plastic bottles, condoms, cigarette butts, damp wads of newspaper and vacated sleeping-bags". This is a writer whose descriptive gift is fine-tuned.

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