Little Red Chairs (O'Brien)

The Little Red Chairs
Edna O'Brien, 2015
Little, Brown & Co.
320 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780316378239

A woman discovers that the foreigner she thinks will redeem her life is a notorious war criminal.

Vlad, a stranger from Eastern Europe masquerading as a healer, settles in a small Irish village where the locals fall under his spell. One woman, Fidelma McBride, becomes so enamored that she begs him for a child.

All that world is shattered when Vlad is arrested, and his identity as a war criminal is revealed.

Fidelma, disgraced, flees to England and seeks work among the other migrants displaced by wars and persecution. But it is not until she confronts him—her nemesis—at the tribunal in The Hague, that her physical and emotional journey reaches its breathtaking climax.

The Little Red Chairs is a book about love, and the endless search for it. It is also a book about mankind's fascination with evil, and how long, how crooked, is the road towards Home. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Birth—December 15, 1930
Where—Tuamgraney, County Clare, Ireland
Education—University College, Dublin
Awards—(see below)
Currently— lives in London, England

Edna O'Brien is an Irish novelist, memoirist, playwright, poet and short story writer. Philip Roth has described her "the most gifted woman now writing in English," while former President of Ireland Mary Robinson has cited her as "one of the great creative writers of her generation."

O'Brien's works often revolve around the inner feelings of women, and their problems in relating to men, and to society as a whole. Her first novel, The Country Girls (1960), is often credited with breaking silence on sexual matters and social issues during a repressive period in Ireland following World War II. The book was banned, burned and denounced from the pulpit, and O'Brien left Ireland behind.

O'Brien now lives in London. She received the Irish PEN Award in 2001. Her 2011 story collection, Saints and Sinners, won the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award, the world's richest prize for a short story collection. Her memoir, Country Girl, was published in 2012.

Earlier years
O'Brien was born in 1930 at Tuamgraney, County Clare, Ireland, a place she would later describe as "fervid" and "enclosed." Her family once had money and position, but by the time of her birth in 1930 all of that was gone and life was difficult, all the more so because her father was distant and often drunk. According to O'Brien, her mother was a strong, controlling woman who had emigrated temporarily to America, and worked for a time as a maid in Brooklyn, New York, for a well-off Irish-American family before returning to Ireland to raise her own family.

O'Brien was the youngest in what she called "a strict, religious family." In the years 1941-46 she was educated by the Sisters of Mercy—a circumstance that contributed to a "suffocating" childhood.

I rebelled against the coercive and stifling religion into which I was born and bred. It was very frightening and all pervasive. I'm glad it has gone.

Her 1970 novel, A Pagan Place, centered on her growing-up years. Her mother strongly disapproved of her daughter's career as a writer; in fact, both parents were vehemently opposed to all things related to literature. Her mother even tried to burn a Sean O'Casey book in her daughter's possession.

She studied pharmacy at University College in Dublin, was awarded her license in 1950, and worked as a pharmacist in Dublin for several years. In 1954, she married Irish writer Ernest Gebler against her parents' wishes. The couple moved to London in 1959 where they raised two sons, Carlo and Sasha. The marriage lasted for 10 years and was dissolved in 1964. Gebler died in 1998.

It was during her marriage that O'Brien bought Introducing James Joyce, with an introduction written by T. S. Eliot. Learning that A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man was autobiographical, it made her realize that she might turn to writing:  "Unhappy houses are a very good incubation for stories," she said.

She worked for an English publishing house and was eventually advanced £50 to write her own novel. The Country Girls, her first book, was result. Published in 1960, the book became the first in a trilogy which included The Lonely Girl (1962) and Girls in Their Married Bliss (1964). Because of their frank portrayal of sex, the books were banned—even burned—in Ireland shortly after publication. Later, in 1987, the three volumes were collected and issued as "The Country Girls Trilogy."

Celebrity life
During the 1960s, O''Brien became a well-known beauty at the center of swinging London, and her glamour and fame became a part of her identity as a writer. She befriended famous celebrities—Paul McCartney, Lord Snowdon, Richard Burton, Sean Connery, Maggie Smith, and Samuel Beckett. She had a house in Carlyle Square which was often filled with the great names, from Harold Wilson to Ingrid Bergman.

In New York her experiences also glittered with celebrities—historian and Kennedy aide Arthur Schlesinger, Al Pacino, Norman Mailer—and with a rewarding, and vivid, friendship with Jacqueline Onassis, who once told Edna that she was one of the three people in the world she loved most

According to Scottish novelist Andrew O'Hagan, her place in Irish letters is assured. "She changed the nature of Irish fiction; she brought the woman's experience and sex and internal lives of those people on to the page, and she did it with style, and she made those concerns international." Irish novelist Colum McCann avers that O'Brien has been "the advance scout for the Irish imagination" for over fifty years.

The Country Girls (1960) ♦ The Lonely Girl (later Girl with Green Eyes, 1962) ♦ Girls in Their Married Bliss (1964) ♦ August Is a Wicked Month (1965) ♦ Casualties of Peace (1966) ♦ A Pagan Place (1970) ♦  Zee & Co. (1971) ♦ Night (1972) ♦ Johnny I Hardly Knew You (1977) ♦ The High Road (1988) ♦ Time and Tide (1992) ♦ House of Splendid Isolation (1994) ♦ Down by the River (1996) ♦ Wild Decembers (1999) ♦ In the Forest (2002) ♦ The Light of Evening (2006) ♦ The Little Red Chairs (2015).

Short story collections
The Love Object and Other Stories (1968) ♦ A Scandalous Woman and Other Stories (1974) ♦ Mrs Reinhardt and Other Stories (1978) ♦ Some Irish Loving (1979) ♦ Returning (1982) ♦ A Fanatic Heart (1985) ♦ Lantern Slides (1990) ♦ Saints and Sinners (2011) ♦ The Love Object: Selected Stories (2013, a fifty-year retrospective)
Mother Ireland (1976) ♦ James Joyce (1999-biography) ♦ Byron in Love (2009-biography) ♦ Country Girl (2012, memoir)

On the Bone (1989) ♦ "Watching Obama" (2009-poem, The Daily Beast)

Awards and honors
Kingsley Amis Award (1962-The Country Girls) ♦ Premio Grinzane Cavour (1991-Girl with Green Eyes) ♦ European Prize for Literature (1995-House of Splendid Isolation) ♦ Irish PEN Award (2001) ♦ Bob Hughes Lifetime Achievement Award (2009) ♦ Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award (2011-Saints and Sinners) ♦ Irish Book Awards-Irish NonFiction (2012-Country Girl)
(Adapted from Wikipedia. Retrieved 4/21/2016.)

Book Reviews
Edna O'Brien's boldly imagined and harrowing new novel…is both an exploration of those themes of Irish provincial life from the perspective of girls and women for which she has become acclaimed and a radical departure, a work of alternate history in which the devastation of a war-torn Central European country intrudes upon the "primal innocence, lost to most places in the world," of rural Ireland. Here, in addition to O'Brien's celebrated gifts of lyricism and mimetic precision, is a new, unsettling fabulist vision that suggests Kafka more than Joyce, as her portrait of the psychopath "warrior poet" Vladimir Dragan suggests Nabokov in his darker, less playful mode…. O'Brien is not interested in sensationalizing her material, and The Little Red Chairs is not a novel of suspense, still less a mystery or a thriller; it is something more challenging, a work of meditation and penance.
Joyce Carol Oates - New York Times Book Review

[An] extraordinary articulation of the lingering effects of trauma.... In the end, what leaves one in humbled awe of The Little Red Chairs is O'Brien's dexterity, her ability to shift without warning—like life—from romance to horror, from hamlet to hell, from war crimes tribunal to midsummer night's dream. And through it all, she embeds the most perplexing moral challenge ever conceived.... At a time when our best writers are such delightfully showy stylists, O'Brien...practices a darker, more subtle magic. Surprise and transformation lurk in even the smallest details, the most ordinary moments.
Ron Charles - Washington Post

O'Brien achieves a tone at once mythical and contemporary, archetypal and particularized, and does wonderful things with voice and tense.... The Little Red Chairs has much to recommend it: beautiful writing, immense ambition, a vivid cast of supporting characters, and a rigorous humanitarian ethos.
Priscilla Gilman - Boston Globe

A memorable work of art for our unsettled times.... [O'Brien's] prose is as lyrically arresting as ever, her vision as astute, and as delicate. The Little Red Chairs is notable for its interweaving of the near-mythical and the urgent present, and for its unflinching exploration of the complex and lasting effects of human brutality.... At once arduous and beautiful, The Little Red Chairs marries myth and fact in a new form that journeys, as we do now, from Cloonoila to The Hague, from fairy­tale to contemporary agon.
Claire Messud - Financial Times (UK)

A spectacular piece of work, massive and ferocious and far-reaching.... Holding you in its clutches from first page to last, it dares to address some of the darkest moral questions of our times while never once losing sight of the sliver of humanity at their core.... It's impossible not to be knocked out by the sly perfection of O'Brien's prose (A Best Book of 2015).
Julie Myerson - Guardian (UK)

Magnificent.... A joyful reminder of why O'Brien's literary career has spanned so many years: she repeatedly finds the sweet spot between tight craft and unhinged brilliance.... A timely and defiant book.
Lucy Atkins - Sunday Times (UK)

The title refers to the 11,541 empty chairs set out in Sarajevo in 2012 as a national monument to represent people killed during the siege by Bosnian Serb forces.) Against this dark subterranean thread O’Brien interjects lines from classic poets...who attest to the enduring power of love. Fidelma’s eventual redemption seems forced, but O’Brien’s eerily potent gaze into the nature of evil is haunting.
Publishers Weekly

(Starred review. ) O'Brien retains every element of her gorgeous writing [in] her new novel.... Dark fairy-tale threads give the story a magic-realism effect, but ultimately...the author's twenty fourth book is starkly realistic. O'Brien speaks to contemporary political violence in a suitably audible voice.

(Starred review. ) [O'Brien] delivers noble truths as well as atrocities. Her fictional depiction of Serbian war criminal Radovan Karadic will chill readers not only because it convincingly exposes the egoism of a rational madman but also because these horrors happened. O'Brien's mastery of symbolism and natural description remain unmatched in modern fiction. —John G. Matthews, Washington State Univ. Libs., Pullman
Library Journal

(Starred review. ) An Irish town is touched by the war crimes in Sarajevo when an outsider sleeps with a local woman and she's driven by shame and brutality into exile.... O'Brien's writing in this rich, wrenching book can be both lyrical and hard-edged, which suits a world where pain shared or a tincture of kindness can help ease the passage from losses.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions
We'll add the publisher's questions if they're made available. In the meantime, use these LitLovers talking points to kick off a discussion for The Little Red Chairs...then take off on your own:

1. How would you describe Dr. Vlad when we first meet him? To one person, he seems to resemble a "holy man," to another a figure of hope, to children he's simply looks "a bit funny." The schoolteacher alone is suspicious...why?

2. What do you make of Father Damien, who at first is wary of Dr. Vlad, especially on learning that he's a sex therapist: "Chastity," he say, "is our No. 1 commandment." He later tells Dr. Vlad that many of the local residents "feel a vacuum in their lives." How so? Is he being insightful or full of cliches? The priest goes on to say that "repentance and sorrow for sin is woven into our DNA." What do you think?

3. How would you describe the lives of the women of Cloonoila? Why are they so susceptible to Dr. Vlad's charms—why do they fall under his spell? Does he, in fact, fill that "vacuum" that Father Damien referred to (see Question 2)?

4. Talk about Fidelma, both her marriage and her affair with Dr. Vlad. Is her attraction to Dr. Vlad a consequence of naivete or lust? In what way is her story treated in the manner of a fairy tale, written with a near mythical quality?

5. Talk about Dr. Vlad's dream. It is written in a narrative style very different from the rest of the book, as it it were inserted as a separate piece of text. What was your experience reading it?

6. Talk about the punishment Fidelma later receives, a punishment way out of proportion to the offense. It is painful, almost impossible, to read...did you? Explore a thematic connection between Fidelma's brutal treatment at the hands of her townspeople and the brutality of the Bosnian war?

7. Can Fidelma atone for her interaction with evil? Trace her spiritual development: how does she work her way toward redemption? Why for instance, why does she choose to live among the homeless—"the hunted, the haunted, the raped, the defeated, the mutilated, the banished, the flotsam of the world, unable to go home"? What do they represent to her?

8. Fidelma chooses "not to look at the prison wall of life, but to look up at the sky." Will this be enough for her? Is it enough for any of us?

9. Given the nature of the world and its capacity for evil, Edna O'Brien seems to be asking whether innocence and naivete are self-destructive—and whether skepticism, distrust or cynicism are justified. What do you think? What should our response be to the world?

10. O'Brien has said about her book, "I wanted to take a dreadful situation and the havoc and harm that it yields, and show how it spirals out into the world at large." How does she go about accomplishing that in The Little Red Chairs?

11. Why is memory so important in this story? During one of their last encounters, Dr. Vlad tells Fidelma, "Start forgetting...everything." Yet one of the displaced persons insists, "It is essential to remember, nothing must be forgotten." What is our responsibility as human beings: should we try to forget and forge ahead with life...or to remember and bear witness?

12. How much did you know about the Bosnian war before reading The Little Red Chairs? For instance, the character of Vladimir Dragan is based on "the Butcher of Bosnia” Radovan Karadzic—whose 2016 conviction of war crimes at the Hague coincided with the U.S. publication of the book. Consider doing some research on the conflict to enrich your book discussion.

(Questions by LitLovers. Please feel free to use them, online or off, with attribution. Thanks.)

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