Home & Away

Celebrating Edna O’Brien on her 90th birthday.

Edna O”Brien at Hay Festival 2016, photo by Andrew Lih [detail].

In addition to being one of the most accomplished fiction writers in English in the past hundred years, Edna O’Brien possesses an intensity of purpose and a force of personality — one might more simply call this bravery — that make her seem a heroine worthy of Madame de Staël or George Eliot. O’Brien’s rebellion against the repressive strictures of the Ireland in which she was raised is well documented. Her first novel, The Country Girls (1960), engaged sexual and social themes previously off-limits in the suffocating sanctimony of her mid-twentieth-century homeland. Indeed, her debut and its sequels (The Lonely Girl, 1962; Girls in Their Married Bliss, 1964) were condemned in churches, banned, and even, on occasion, burned. The acclaimed literary career that followed this incendiary beginning has produced more than a dozen novels, several volumes of short stories, biographies of James Joyce (an early inspiration) and Lord Byron, plays, and a memoir.

Published in the author’s eighty-fifth year, The Little Red Chairs is a fitting and, frankly, astonishing culmination of her literary gifts and creative courage. The novel moves with startling speed and surety from the lovely lanes of Irish provincial life into the bloodstained terrain of the Balkan War, spinning a web of fear, violence, and displacement as human decency is driven from domestic certainty and transformed into something lost and wandering.

The central figure is Fidelma, a local beauty whose longing leads her unknowingly into the embrace of a brutal war criminal. Riven by guilt and recrimination, she must extricate herself to define a new sense of both self and home. O’Brien’s fictive invention encompasses omniscient narration, Fidelma’s interior monologues, and the voices of many other tellers of private tales within the larger one. The range of emotion realized in character and incident has a resonance that is both chilling and breathtaking, Shakespearean in its eloquence and intuition.

The book’s title invokes the 11,541 red chairs that, in April 2012, were actually laid out in rows along the half mile of the main street in Sarajevo, one empty chair for every Sarajevan killed during the 1,425 days of the 1992–96 siege of the city. O’Brien’s novel evolves from fairy tale to parable to historical tragedy as it marks the way stations of the refugees, real and metaphorical, whom the author honors with vivid elegy: “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.” Reaching for beauty from roots of terror, The Little Red Chairs reads like a sacrament, with all the uncanny truths and consequences a sacrament invokes.

Excerpted from the book, 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die by James Mustich. Copyright © 2018 by James Mustich. Published by Workman Publishing.

Now: Author, 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die. Then: publisher and chief bookseller, A Common Reader. https://www.1000bookstoread.com/