The eminent Irish novelist Edna O’Brien, author of the beloved “Country Girls’’ trilogy and numerous other works of fiction and nonfiction, is back with “The Little Red Chairs,’’ her first novel in 10 years. The book has earned rhapsodic praise in the United Kingdom and comes loaded with accolades. On the book’s front cover, Philip Roth declares: “The great Edna O’Brien has written her masterpiece.”
The novel begins alluringly. We witness the arrival of a charismatic stranger in an Irish village, “his presence the single curiosity in the monotony of a winter evening in a freezing backwater that passes for a town and is named Cloonoila.” Handsome Dr. Vladimir Dragan comes from Montenegro, has the “aura of one of those holy men,” compares himself to Siddhartha and Ovid, and presents business cards describing himself as “Healer and Sex Therapist.” Naturally, sides are quickly formed. Many accept that he’s “a doctor, a philosopher, a poet and a healer,” while others suspect he’s “dodgy, a con artist of some kind, or maybe a bigamist.”
Vlad is magnetic and charming; he has a politician’s touch for ingratiating himself with strangers. The women take a particular shine to him and his healing massages. She who falls hardest is Fidelma, the “town beauty.” Married to a much older man with a failed business, Fidelma has had two failed pregnancies and harbors literary aspirations, making her especially vulnerable to the poetic and potent Vlad. Soon the two begin an affair with the purpose of giving her a child. What started as a dark comedy about the absurdities of susceptible locals and cosmopolitan slicksters becomes something much more sinister.
A few months into the pregnancy, Vlad is arrested and exposed as a notorious Balkan war criminal, “the most wanted man in Europe, with a price on his head.” The townspeople react with shock and disbelief. But it is Fidelma whose investments are unwound most violently. In quick succession, she loses her lover, her husband, her reputation, her place in the world, and, after a brutal attack by some of Vlad’s former cronies, even her unborn child. She flees to London, joins a makeshift community of exiles, refugees, and itinerant workers, and embarks on a “quest for truth, justice, atonement” that involves finding and confronting Vlad.
“The Little Red Chairs’’ takes its title from the 2012 Sarajevo Red Line war memorial: 11,541 red chairs arranged in rows to mark the 20th anniversary of the siege of Sarajevo by Bosnian Serb forces (643 small chairs symbolized the children killed). O’Brien achieves a tone at once mythical and contemporary, archetypal and particularized, and does wonderful things with voice and tense: Frequent perspective and tense shifts unsettle our assumptions and allow for a panoramic picture of human desire, suffering, loss, and longing. In both Ireland and London, a chorus of refugees and exiles gives eloquent voice to the costs of war, ethnic cleansing, and brutality: “They are there because they have nowhere else to go. Nobodies, mere numbers on paper or computer, the hunted, the haunted, the raped, the defeated, the mutilated, the banished, the flotsam of the world, unable to go home, wherever home is.’’
O’Brien is clearly fascinated by how a man can be both brutally cruel and literarily sensitive. Oughtn’t there to be something that would reveal the killer in the healer? Of equal interest is how smart, essentially “good” people can deceive themselves; how guilty is their blind enablement?
But there aren’t a lot of perspective-changing insights here. O’Brien doesn’t really illuminate the nature of evil in a book that seems badly to want to. This is owing in part to Vlad and Fidelma’s being the least interesting characters in the novel — a problem when we’re either focusing on them or in their heads (including two awkward and ill-advised dream sequences) much of the time. We see Vlad’s shadiness and enter his head far too soon (undercutting both his enigmatic allure and the suspense of O’Brien’s storytelling).
Fidelma doesn’t really warrant her association with the book’s much more interesting victims of global displacement — refugees from Africa or survivors of Sarajevo. Rather than being a kind of empty vessel for the content of common human suffering, her vapidity is at odds with their true innocence (which may be why O’Brien threw in the harrowing and gratuitous attack on her by Vlad’s people). At one point, her husband, Jack, says of Fidelma: “I felt I never really got to know her.” The reader may well feel the same.
These objections aside, “The Little Red Chairs’’ has much to recommend it: beautiful writing, immense ambition, a vivid cast of supporting characters, and a rigorous humanitarian ethos. But we want to have been better beguiled, more intricately and subtly seduced by the author’s imaginative power.
THE LITTLE RED CHAIRS
By Edna O’Brien
Little, Brown, 299 pp., $27
Priscilla Gilman is a former professor of English literature at Yale University and Vassar College and the author of “The Anti-Romantic Child: A Memoir of Unexpected Joy.’’