Edna O’Brien, The Little Red Chairs


This is my first book by this celebrated Irish author who has lived most of her life in London, but from whom I have heard she is a keen critique of Irish society, especially the claustrophobic aspects related to Catholicism and small town life, probably not unlike what we could have said about life in my native Québec some decades ago…

This book, however, has a very different twist, as it is set in recent times and features a number of issues, one of which is the clash between quiet small town Irish life and the intrusion of the outside world in the guise of a mysterious foreigner who ends up being the source of transgression, scandal, and as we later find out, utmost evil.

A stranger arrives in the small town looking for lodgings and later opens a business advertising himself as a healer. He gathers some following amongst the women of the town and eventually makes one of them his lover, with tragic consequences.

When the stranger is arrested and the scandal is revealed, the lover has to leave town, to start in new life in London, in a motley group of refugees, battered women, and the kind souls that seek to help them. And quite ironically, the man the town knew as a healer was a war criminal in hiding.

After a time, the stranger is being judged as a war criminal in The Hague, and the lover travelled to the city to witness the trial and to attempt to cleanse herself of the rage that fills her. I imagine she finds some peace there, enough to go back to her life in London, and to find some fulfillment in being an active member of the community she now belongs to by choice, rather than by obligation or tradition.

I found the tone of the book to be quite dreamy, as if Fidelma, the main character, did not quite connect with people, including her husband and the women that she could consider her friends, in her life of conformity before the stranger showed up, as if there was something different about her that made difficult to belong. And that in spite of the gruesomeness of the attack that led to her flight from Ireland, it was one the keys that enabled her to find a greater sense of meaning, as in the end meaning and music come out of cacophony. The final chapter is called “Home” and starts with the sentence “I am not a stranger here anymore.”  Survival takes many different forms.

The title refers to the 2012 Sarajevo Red Line Project, where red chairs were lined up in the city to remember the victims of the siege of 1992-1996.

I had bought Edna O’Brien’s 2013 memoir Country Girl – A Memoir when it was published but did not get very far into it. Not knowing any of the author’s work did not make it appealing. I am certainly looking forward to it now, as well as to reading some of the earlier works. The writing was just beautiful, using all the senses to create unforgettable moments.


O’Brien, Edna. The Little Red Chairs. Faber & Faber, London, 2015.

O’Brien, Edna. Country Girl – A Memoir. Little, Brown, New York, 2012.

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