An Irish town by a fast, cold river. Emerald grass. Flocks of sheep on country roads. Neighbors who have known one another their entire lives. This idyll is but a smoke screen in The Little Red Chairs
, Edna O'Brien's superb new book. People "crave scandal as if it were nectar," says Fidelma, our complicated heroine, and they get it in spades after an alluring bearded foreigner arrives in town. The stranger, Dr. Vladimir Dragan of Montenegro, sets up a healing practice. Charismatic and erudite, he charms everyone, especially the women. His affair with Fidelma, unhappily childless in her marriage, ends in pregnancy. Rumors spread, and soon Vlad's true identity is exposed. In a cinematically choreographed scene, he's arrested for masterminding the siege of Sarajevo, and all those who'd welcomed him are tainted by his crimes. It's Fidelma, though, who feels it most acutely. She flees to London to start anew among the migrants and refugees: "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."
O'Brien takes up her signature themes—close-knit communities, love/hate for the homeland, the plight of women, loss and desire, victimhood, romantic love—and casts their compassionate reach far beyond Ireland. Frequent switches of tense and vignettes that start midaction create a sense that characters exist beyond the page. Populated by many memorable voices, the work feels loose and textural, both all-encompassing and personal. It asks the kinds of questions only a novel could dare; like a great novel must, it leaves many of them unanswered.
Toward the end, Fidelma's landlord says of his wife, who has committed suicide: "We don't know others...especially those we are most intimate with, because habit blurs us and hope blinds us to the truth." The observation rings true, and yet the hallmark of literature is that it shows what it feels like to be not ourselves, to look at the world through another's eyes. As in The Little Red Chairs, it picks a singular face from the masses and creates something indelible.