"Little Red Chairs" Slice Through A Summer Reading Slump


12 Sept. 2018


The Little Red Chairs by Edna O'Brien
The Little Red Chairs by Edna O'Brien

Reading challenges keep me anchored around a purpose when too easily my existence can revolve around school, laundry, dinner, repeat. And writing about them fills the jigsaw piece of my soul where artistic expression fights for real estate. But what to do when every book I’ve read this summer has failed to inspire? Following a personal literary scavenger hunt, I scoured my shelves for “a book about an immigrant or refugee". The Little Red Chairs by Edna O'Brien rescued my brain from sun-poached summer quick reads and told a difficult tale with rich prose, wry humor, and deep pockets of Nature's beauty, reliably a lifeline when all else falls into chaos.
"On the 6th of April 2012, to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the start of the siege of Sarajevo by Bosnian Serb forces, 11,541 red chairs were laid out in rows along the eight hundred metres of the Sarajevo high street. One empty chair for every Sarajevan killed during the 1,425 days of siege. Six hundred and forty-three small chairs represented the children killed by snipers and the heavy artillery fired from the surrounding mountains."
Split between a small Irish town and the teeming city of London, the story opens with the enchanting fairy-tale arrival of a mysterious stranger, the gentle seduction of the townsfolk, the illusion of a world apart. Then, with a masterful, unsettling shift, the novel moves from pastoral comedy to wartime brutality. Genocide is the dark stain running through this narrative, as is the uncomfortable question of complicity. Hiding from atrocities that occur far from home won't make them disappear, as the townspeople of Cloonoila learn. And home is not a permanently guaranteed harbor. The evil of men is on full display as the truth of the mysterious stranger emerges. And the author spares no sensitivities in exposing the depravity humans are capable of inflicting on their own neighbors. 

Oh yes, the first third is dark. But the author shifts again. Our appalled hearts are given a reprieve as she turns her talents to healing. Giving voice to the victims, empowering them even as the security of home, family, and national identity have been ripped away, Ms. O’Brien breathes a spark onto the ashes of genocide, reminding us of the resiliency harboring deep within survivors. A support group brings characters together, culturally different but united in circumstance. Often unseen and misunderstood, these refugees are given context and individuality. Like Chaucer’s pilgrims, they each had a tale to tell, told with their own unique flair.

“My friends I tell you this, we are a jolly group but put us in uniform and all that change. In war I don’t know who my brother. In war I don’t know who my friend. War make everybody savage. Who can say what lies inside the heart of each one of us when everything is taken away.” 

The almost insurmountable odds these people face in carving out a foothold in a suspicious society was, for me, a daunting education. They are survivors in a world that makes survival complicated, technical, bureaucratic. And all are unmoored. “You would not believe how many words there are for ‘home’ and what savage music there can be wrung from it.” The author has them share their stories unfiltered, but she gives them a patina of hope, a much needed balance. 

Literary illusions pervade this novel, even in describing bleak hardship. One quote in particular struck at my bibliophile heart. “We were a bookish family. We loved our books, but before long they were lined up next to the stove and my mother and my uncle fought over which should go first and which should be saved to the very last. The Iliad was a beautiful first edition, the pride of our library, but it too went: Agamemnon, king of men, Nestor, flower of Achaean chivalry, the Black Ships, Patroclus' corpse, Helen's bracelets, Cassandra's shrieks, all met the flames, for the sake of two or three suppers. My uncle was loath to let Mark Twain go...Huckleberry Finn and his river did not deserve such an ignominious end.” 

The last third is dedicated to justice. Vlad, the Butcher of Bosnia and the charmer of Cloonoila is put on trial for his sins. Fidelma, who lost her heart and so much more when she fell under his spell in Ireland, seeks out closure. "It occurred to her that a trace of him still lurked in her, minute and spectral, that effluvial stain that would be her stigmata forever. It was then that she resolved to ask for an appointment to see him, as things had to be settled between them." The closure she received was more realistic than tidy, but both she and the reader are allowed to step forward and away from the cruelty of the past.

Lyrical, heart-rending, witty, terrifying, tender, inspiring - Ms. O'Brien weaves all expertly, allowing us to smile as often as we wince. The novel takes you on a journey of dark truths, but ends on a scene of such resilience and beauty, to write further would spoil the reader's deserved reward. I highly recommend it. One caveat though. Read with a loved one close or at least in phone call range. This novel is a stark reminder of such blessings.
"Little Red Chairs" Slice Through A Summer Reading Slump
"Little Red Chairs" Slice Through A Summer Reading Slump



Ghillian Porter-Smith returns after a little break with a review of The Little Red Chairs by Edna O'Brien.

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