Brilliant passages but misses the mark overall

This is my review of The Little Red Chairs by Edna O’Brien.

It is not surprising that the enigmatic, charming Doctor Vladimir Dragan, self-styled healer and sex therapist causes a stir in the Irish backwater of Clooniola, steeped in Catholic tradition and Celtic superstition, but beginning to feel the effects of the EU, bringing funds for a motorway and a stream of east European workers to revive the tourist trade.

Is Vlad truly spiritual or a charlatan? He is clearly escaping from his previous life, but is this as a victim, or perpetrator of war crimes? Has grumpy ex-Schoolmaster Diarmuid hit the nail on head in likening him to Rasputin? To what extent is he a thoroughly human mix of strengths and failings for which there are extenuating circumstances?

The “little red chairs” of the title refer to the 643 set out along the main street in Sarajevo to commemorate the number of children who died in the long siege conducted by Bosnian Serbs, with 11,541 red chairs to mark the overall death toll. Edna O’Brien is ambitious in attempting to combine a portrayal of the psychology of a leader driven to genocide with an understanding of the ongoing suffering yet resilience of the migrants forced to leave their families and possessions in an attempt to form a more secure home in a very different and often unwelcoming culture.

Not having read Edna O’Brien for years, I was at first impressed by her distinctive style, poetical Irish whimsy with flashes of sharp wit, but would have been tempted to give up around page 89 if this had been the work of a less celebrated and experienced writer. I found it hard to forgive some very unconvincing scenes, like the farcical book group in which the locals read “the chapter called Dido from the Aeneid, Book IV”. Apart from the fact that the Irish are too often portrayed as stereotypes or caricatures, there is a surfeit of characters, not leaving enough space to develop them as individuals. I never had a sense of what really “makes Vlad tick” and agree that using a deceased friend in one of his dreams to reveal some of his guilty past to the reader is one contrivance too many. I don’t know to what extent Edna O’Brien has used real examples for her portraits of migrants, but their stories are too often provided in over-long monologues in an artificial style which jars as unrealistic. I know it is hard to create authentic “voices” for characters using English as a second language, but everyone appears to have a “voice” which is a variation of Edna O’Brien’s.

I found some of the author’s “vignettes” moving or amusing – the young bartender Dara, intrigued but puzzled by Vlad, the description of a robin “same tilt to the head, the little flirt, with her tricks, landing then darting off into the thickets”, Fidelma's persecution by the malicious cleaning supervisor Medusa, with her snake-like plait, the satnav which had “lost its navigating marbles”. However, there seem to be too many digressions, so that a potentially powerful theme based on a thinly-disguised Radovan Karadzic is dissipated, tailing off into a somewhat sentimental conclusion.

⭐⭐⭐ 3 Stars

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