Hello, people of the internet!
Have you ever bought a book that was strategically placed at the till as a last second buy? Well, I did. I bought The Little Red Chairs by Edna O’Brien.
There has been some much praise for this book and I’ll be honest in saying that this was both a good sign and a bad sign to me. Good in that ‘Yay! This book can’t possibly be bad at all with all this praise!’ and bad in that ‘I’ve fallen for this ‘so much praise’ before and it didn’t turn out so well’.
So, which sign turned out to be the correct one?
Title: The Little Red Chairs
Author: Edna O’Brien
Publication Date: 29 October 2015
Publisher: Faber & Faber
When a man who calls himself a faith healer arrives in a small, west-coast Irish village, the community is soon under the spell of this charismatic stranger from the Balkans. One woman in particular, Fidelma McBridge, becomes enthralled in a fatal attraction that leads to unimaginable consequences.
Oh boy, this book has some very good qualities and some very bad ones mixed in. I’m not sure where to begin, but I’ll start off with the subject of the story.
This is not a book for the faint-hearted. This is about war crimes and victims seeking asylum from all over the world. There’s also an act of sexual violence that is very harrowing and incredibly shocking to read, as it should be. So many characters tell their stories of how atrocities caused by war criminals, politics and even family members, forced them to flee their countries. It paints very graphic images. The way Edna O’Brien writes their stories is one of the best features of this book. It is very personal, especially when some characters speak in broken English, it really adds to their voice.
However, this leads to a downside. There is so much focus on these characters – that add to the atmosphere, but don’t add to the overall plot in that if the main character, Fidelma, were to not meet them, it wouldn’t affect the plot at all – that it means Fidelma is not as developed as I had liked. If anyone were to ask me how I would describe Fidelma, I couldn’t tell you much. As a protagonist, one has to understand her reasoning and connect emotionally with the pain she went through. That doesn’t happen as prominently when there are so many other characters telling their stories, it leaves Fidelma in the background. So much so that whenever Fidelma does describe about what happened to her and her feelings, it doesn’t even compare.
Speaking of which, despite the horrific and disgusting act committed against her, she rarely mentions how it has affected her; and when she does talk about her own story, she mentions the stranger, Vlad, who didn’t even commit that act on her at all! His war crimes and the fact she fell in love with an evil man do understandably affect her feelings towards him, but the sexual violence inflicted on her should have been addressed more yet it is barely mentioned. The men who committed that sexual violence were associated with Vlad and his war crimes, but there’s very, very little mention of them afterwards and there is no mention of the garda being involved to catch them. I strongly dislike, even borderline hate, this aspect of the book and I feel it should have been addressed more.
The narrative itself is also a mixed bag. There are sections where it is beautiful written and paints a vivid picture of setting and themes. When reading, I could see Ireland and London. The themes of asylum-seekers and war crimes are written perfectly enough to invoke emotions. The explanation of ‘the little red chairs’ stayed with me and definitely deserves to be the title.
However, there are sections which didn’t make a lot of sense. For the majority of the book, it is written in 3rd person. Yet there are a few, small chapters that are written in 1st person. It doesn’t add much because regardless of which part is written in 3rd or 1st person, the reader knows what the characters are thinking and feeling. The 3rd person narrator isn’t only an observer of the characters’ actions; the 3rd person narrator describes their inner thoughts. So, to have chapters in 1st person doesn’t make sense. Also, there were times when it jumped about a little too much. I could keep track on what was happening for the most part, but there were times I needed to reread.
The set-up of a stranger in a new town is not a new one, but luckily the introduction of war crimes adds more substance to the book. As for characters, despite the majority being somewhat stereotypical of people from Ireland and London, I’m glad to see a mixture of both good and bad characters. Good and bad as in morals. I was worried that once Fidelma’s infidelity was revealed, everyone in her community would abandon her. Some are immediately antagonistic, but there were those who did help her. These actions say a lot about their true characters. There are people who she encounters in London both help her and hinder her. This balances out the overall tone of the book and so it isn’t overly depressing.
Overall, I would give this book 3 stars out of 5. There are some problems with it that hinder the development of Fidelma’s character and what I think about the book as a whole. I would honestly feel more emotionally towards Fidelma if she was developed more. I have to say that even though the other characters, who don’t add to the plot, stole Fidelma’s spotlight, their stories are incredibly powerful.
Have you read this book? Feel free to let me know what you thought of it.
Thank you for reading!