Click here to read reviewer Luan Gaines' take on The Little Red Chairs.
Sometimes difficult to read, O’Brien’s lyrical novel is loosely based on Radovan Karadžić, a convicted war criminal who served as the President of Republika Srpska during the Bosnian War and was found guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity. The friendly, eccentric man who arrives at the quaint Irish village of Cloonoila isn’t anything like the inhumane Serbian butcher called the Angel of Death and the Beast of Bosnia, a man known for his wartime swagger as a “warrior poet” and his claims to have had a mystical conviction of his role in history. This man, with his graying hair and long dark coat, and white gloves, is called Dr. Vladimir (Vlad) Dragan and is a single curiosity in the monotony of this freezing Irish backwater.
Vlad is from Montenegro and is anxious to get acquainted with the local people. He intends to make Cloonoila his home, sensing the town’s “primal innocence” that is lost to most places in the world. A healer, sex therapist, doctor, and poet, Vuk transfixes everyone with his eyes and his long fingers as “expressive as a pianist’s.” While the gentle ladies of Cloonoila--both married and unmarried-- begin “to doff their bonnets at him,” Father Damien sees Vlad as almost Messianic in his enthusiasm. Vlad tells him of the healing secrets in plants and ferns, the only medicine that can enable patients to listen “to the sound of the soul itself.”
At night, Vlad dreams of his beloved Sarajevo with its hundreds of empty red chairs, including the little ones for children, chairs that have come symbolize the lamentations of the dead. By day, he focuses on Fidelma, the draper’s wife, a “lovely woman from a lovely Christian family” inexplicably drawn to this strange and mercurial man. Vlad fixates on Fidelma with his “dark and untelling eyes,” and Fidelma is aware of his attentiveness. The man infinitely courteous but also mysterious and inscrutabl. Vlad will expose Fidelma’s greatest grievance of her life so far: her battle to have a child.
In these early chapters, O’Brien makes us collude in Fidelma’s actions in choosing Vlad over her husband Jack, the sudden plunge into wild infidelity at first meeting only a slender resistance. Ready to decipher the untamed passions within Fidelma, Vlad--giving his new muse a single, knowing glance--begins to plan their assignations. Meeting incognito at a local hotel, Vlad makes Fidelma swear to secrecy, (“we must not get your story mixed up with my story Fidelma”). Fidelma is in danger of threatening her home and her happiness yet driven by Jack, his terrible, weeping ardor and the notion that a house without a child is an empty nest. To her detriment, Fidelma never questions Vlad’s motivations as her passion unfolds and Vlad’s true nature is revealed in a shocking denouement to the first part of the novel.
O’Brien alters her focus as the story moves from Ireland to London. There Fidelma, homeless and disgraced, wanders the streets, strung tight with the tension of her marital shame. The baby is never mentioned (“a sinful clot that had been disposed of”), her marriage to Jack cracked, a decent man, faithful husband, and pillar of the community who was “dragged down into mire.” For Fidelma, Vlad’s fate hardly registers in those first awful months after the attack, hours of pain where men came to avenge themselves. From the first grubby days and nights struggling to live in Kensington High Street in a bed and breakfast not far from Victoria Station to finding work as a cleaning lady in London’s financial district then later as a kennel worker in Kent, Fidelma dreams of Vlad, perpetually haunted by his shadow that seems to “disappear just up the street.”
O’Brien writes beautifully, her damaged heroine a thoroughly human creation, her every observation so real and sometimes brutally honest. I loved the deliberate, attentive development of Fidelma’s every thought and feeling as she desperately tries to remake her life in a drop-in shelter called The Center. Here Fidelma meets people from all over the world who have come in search of advice. Once a fortnight, migrants gather to share the stories of their fractured lives, individuals--mainly women--who have been raped, defeated, and mutilated, including the victims of the siege of Sarajevo. These are banished, the “flotsam of the world” who are unable to go home to wherever home is.
O’Brien brings her story full circle with her account of the Hague War Crimes Tribunal and how one man became the driving force in genocide. Forced to acknowledge the tender lacerations of pain, Fidelma finds herself again front and center as this monster crafts a defense based on falsehood. From the difficult human interactions that can sometimes affect and poison us, O’Brien ends her powerful novel with a plea for hope and compassion for the suffering, for those who search for love and sometimes inexplicably stumble across it, not that far from home.