Regular Bacon contributor Laura Cooper has expectations in check for the summer. “I definitely think summer ranks right up there with New Year’s Eve on the expectation-vs-experience, sine-cosine graph,” she observes. That being said, she’s “eager to enjoy the day-to-dayness” of summer with three growing sons in the house: “The boys are planets these days rather than just more dust in our family nebula, so it’s time to appreciate their figuring out the orbit thing.”
Laura has figured out that she needs a place outside of the home to write, so she’s found a spot in one of these cool communal spaces so popular with 20-somethings (and others, she notices!). One fruit of that labor: today’s post. I’m delighted for her to share her thoughts on Edna O’Brien’s The Little Red Chairs. “The great Edna O’Brien has written her masterpiece,” says Philip Roth on the front cover. “A memorable work of art for our unsettled times,” writes novelist Claire Messud on the back. Having bogged down about halfway through, I was glad to read Laura’s take…
In the world according to Instagram – the Ladies’ Home Journal of our time – “home” is a gauzy, curated, and (above all) serene sphere, where women reign in well-furnished, well-groomed, and much-“liked” splendor. An adoring adult partner is largely a given, whether actually pictured or implied, off-screen. Children at home are endlessly adorable, accomplished, and cooperative. Ever see a post showing a surly teenage boy demanding more X-box time? Me neither. Not that I haven’t threatened one. #notasweetie.
If you’ve spent much time drinking this particular modern Kool-Aid, then you, like me, might take a while to catch the deeply subversive truth of Edna O’Brien’s new novel, The Little Red Chairs.
On the surface, this story – a fairy tale in the Grimm tradition – is about Evil invading the remote Irish hamlet of Cloonoila, near Donegal Bay, a rural community still doused in “that primal innocence lost to most places in the world.” Cloonoila and its locals are almost mythically pristine. A woman chats with the ghost of a past boarder; another, desperate for a child, follows a psychic’s order to pray while plunging her face in the frigid, rushing river. A wronged husband waits months to die, mystically, at the feet of his long-estranged wife. Villagers wander the woods “in the footsteps of the druids [to] learn the healing properties in nature.” Cloonoila is the stock Celtic “thin space,” where the boundary between the real and the unreal, the natural and the supernatural, is so porous that human experience slides smoothly from one side to the other, and back again. It’s all Yeats and faeries.
One dark and stormy night, a stranger enters this Eden, materializing on a bridge near the village, contemplating the wild river below. “Bearded and in a long dark coat and white gloves,” he’s Dr. Vladimir Dragan, Poet, “Healer and Sex Therapist,” arrived from Montenegro to open a clinic for “Holistic Healing in Eastern and Western Disciplines.” He rents a room and settles in. The villagers watch, enchanted, as Dr. Vlad gathers seaweed for massages and body wraps. They share the postmistress’ gossip about herbs and tinctures he ships in from China, India, Burma, and Wales. Dr. Vlad charms the local Catholic priest, despite his Church-worrying Serbian Orthodox faith. Even the town’s most stalwart nun, Sister Bonaventure, ventures into Dr. Vlad’s clinic for a massage with hot stones and freezing marble, which leaves her with a “prodigal” energy, “a wildness such as she had not known since her youth.” He bows, Namaste, Namaste.
The village beauty, the blandly-married Fidelma McBride, is ground down by miscarriages, an aging husband, and the failure of her beloved dress shop. She is drawn to Dr. Vlad, his poetry, and his exotic, mysterious sensuality. She convinces him to father a child, her one great desire; and he does.
So far, a familiar (if unnerving) fairy tale, with Dr. Vlad as the powerful wish-granting Sorcerer and Magus. Except that Dr. Vlad is really the fugitive “Beast of Bosnia,” a Serbian war criminal responsible for atrocities against civilians during the four-year Bosnian Serb siege of Sarajevo. O’Brien’s drawn Vlad from the real life Radovan Karadzic, who hid in plain sight for twelve years after indictment, by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, for genocide against Bosnian Muslims and Croat civilians in Sarajevo and Srebrenica. Karadzic was finally caught and tried. Just this past March, he was sentenced to 40 years in prison.
O’Brien’s Dr. Vlad, too, is finally exposed and arrested, seized from a charter bus while leading a Cloonoila poetry pilgrimage to Ben Bulben, the large Sligo rock formation where anti-British IRA fighters were said to have been martyred by pro-British soldiers in 1920, and near where Yeats chose to be buried. Vlad’s arrest abruptly ends O’Brien’s fairy tale.
What happens next can, I think, be read on at least two levels. First, there’s the horrific aftermath of Vlad’s arrest, for his Evil draws more Evil – so harrowing it’s almost unreadable – into Cloonoila’s once-charmed circle. Fidelma’s husband discovers her infidelity, and she flees to London, where she struggles to survive among other displaced women escaping violence and oppression across Europe and Africa. She, the once-proud boutique owner and beauty, finds work cleaning offices and caring for dogs in a kennel. She travels to The Hague to witness Vlad at his trial, and she insists on confronting him in his cell. In the end, she settles in London to work with refugees in crisis, “people in predicaments, migrants with babes in arms fleeing atrocities and heading for nowhere. . . . Shattered worlds. Lost embryos. . . . [N]owhere to put their heads down.” The refugee women are “all united . . . sisters . . . All from the bleeding places.”
To be honest, I didn’t find The Red Chairs all that compelling on this first narrative level. For all the beauty of O’Brien’s writing – and it is both ethereally lovely and piercingly precise – the plot after Vlad’s capture felt both formulaic and ripped-from-the-headlines, a kind of CNN special on civilian-targeting war and refugee displacement in modern Europe. Worthy and necessary as news analysis; less interesting as a novel. Like O’Brien’s title, which references the 2012 commemoration of the Sarajevo siege, when survivors placed almost 12,000 red chairs along the city’s high street, one empty chair for every Sarajevan killed, including 643 small chairs for children murdered by Serb snipers and heavy artillery. The women Fidelma meets in London, first as a Cloonoila refugee herself and then as a counselor to others, read as a parade of representative sketches rather than complex, fully realized human characters. They are in the book to represent a story category – the raped teenage mother, the survivor of female circumcision, the tribal first wife displaced into poverty by the younger wives that followed. The sheltered hopeful daughters of new immigrants, chafing against their parents’ fears of London and assimilation. All worthwhile reminders of the modern world’s inhumanities, but not transformative works of art.
But then there’s the novel’s second level of meaning, and this one captured me: The Little Red Chairs is an extended meditation on the paradoxical problem of Home. That’s been a constant puzzle in O’Brien’s work, starting back in 1960 with the publication of her first novel, The Country Girls, a story of two rural girls coming of age in post-World War II Ireland. Scandalously frank for its time – the novel was banned, burned, and denounced by the Church for its depiction of Irish Catholic girls interested in sex – The Country Girls, like O’Brien’s 2012 autobiography The Country Girl, depict an Ireland where every notion of home carries the freight of both devotion and fear, yearning and violence. A woman’s fine house secures her social status; it declares her place above the peasants hunkering in sod huts and the caravan dwellers roaming the outskirts. But her claim, her hold on home, is always tenuous and subject to sudden loss. Husbands drink away money and trade away acres. Gambling on horses costs your family’s most beautiful pasture. A bailiff invades to seize property for debts, and sits drinking tea when your daughter comes home from school. You flee when your drunk husband turns violent, waving a pistol while gripped with DTs; you hide your children at the neighbors’. But you always return, like O’Brien’s mother,
. . . vowing that we would be a happy family from then onward, as my father had taken the pledge. As a celebration she would make an orange cake, and when it was baked, she would take it out of the oven and allow me to plunge a knitting needle into it, which I would then lick – the taste of the warm, orangy dough so delicious.
In O’Brien’s books, home is where pregnancy forces you to marry; where you miscarry then die from grief. Peddlers wander in unasked, riffle your silver and steal your shoes. Your own dog attacks in your kitchen, nearly ripping out your throat. Home is where that festering wound is lanced and sutured, with only orange cake and lemon curd for the pain.
Home is where women, in particular, both rule and suffer, where they are sovereign and victim alike. It’s never a reliably safe haven.
What’s true for family is true for nations: home brings comfort, but conflict too. O’Brien’s Ireland, like the former Yugoslavia, carries a history of almost constant violent troubles, internal wars over title and territory under an arc of foreign occupation and interference. O’Brien recounts family card games collapsing into fierce quarrels over “the old story of Ireland partitioned . . . . and raging arguments as to who was to blame.”
It was borne in on me at that very young age that I came from fierce people and that the wounds of history were as raw and vivid as the pictures on the packs of cards that had been flung down.
And although O’Brien does not at all suggest that Dr. Vlad’s crimes against humanity could in any way be justified – as, of course, they could not be – she does nonetheless tell the truth that the Bosnian Serbs were, in their barbaric way, fighting for their own idea of home. Sarajevo is Vlad’s “beloved” “Utopia, that diamond city enfolded in hills.” He believes he belongs to “a wronged race, starting with the Battle of Kosovo in 1389,” when the invading Ottoman army toppled the Serbian Empire, in time forcing it under Muslim rule.
Bosnia; Ben Bulben; Cloonoila. All treacherous and beloved: all home. And even when devastated by war or time, abandoned, crumbling, and full of painful memories, home binds you fast:
[I]n the lambent light of . . . August evening, with the sun going down, a bit of creeper crimsoning and latticed along an upstairs window, the whole place seemed to hold, and would forever hold . . . the essence of itself, the thing that gave it the sacred and abiding name of Home.
The Little Red Chairs ends with a chapter called “Home.” Fidelma McBride has returned to London from confronting Vlad in The Hague, and she’s working at the Center for displaced refugee families. Her estranged husband has died and left her their idyllic, comfortable house in Cloonoila, but she has not yet resolved her feelings about Vlad and their child: “I could not go home until I could come home to myself.” So she stays in London to seek “[w]hat brings peace. What brings certainty.”
It’s Christmas, and the Center women put on a play, “a very free interpretation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” For the finale, O’Brien writes, “the word Home was to be sung and chanted in the thirty-five different languages of the performers.” There’s a rocky start:
At first, even after many rehearsals, it was awry, the voices grated, the very harmony they had aspired to was missing, and then one woman stepped forward and took command, her voice rich and supple, a wine-dark sea filled with the drowned memories of love and belonging. Soon others followed, until at last thirty-five tongues, as one, joined in a soaring, transcendent Magnificat. Home. Home. Home. . . .
You would not believe how many words there are for home and what savage music there can be wrung from it.
As O’Brien has proven for decades, it’s hard to argue with that.