The Little Red Chairs
Allen & Unwin, $29.99 pb, 320 pp, 9780571316298
Edna O'Brien, in a recent interview, recalled being stuck for a plot. It was a filmmaker's remark about Tolstoy that sparked her latest novel, The Little Red Chairs: '[Charlie McCarthy] said, "Tolstoy said there are only two great stories in the world. A Man on a Journey, or A Stranger Comes to Town." And at that moment I thought, I've got it. I'm going to bring a stranger with a past – not just a romantic stranger, but a stranger with a political past – to a small Irish town.' And this is what she has done. Weaving recent European history – the Balkan conflict of 1991–2001 – into the story of a woman's longing for a child that is biblical in its simplicity, O'Brien has written a novel of deception and savagery that is unflinching and monstrous and all too human.
The stranger, Vladimir Dragan, appears one evening in the picturesque backwater of Cloonoila, on Ireland's west coast. We see him beside the town's river where he contemplates its dangerous currents. When he enters a local hotel the barman is impressed by Dragan's long white hair and beard, his flowing coat, and his business card advertising services as a holistic healer and sex therapist. 'Your people have suffered injustice just as my people have,' Dragan tells him, linking the bloody history of Montenegro with that of Ireland. Soon 'Vuc' (the name means wolf in Serbian) is the object of fervent town gossip as he is spotted gathering woodland herbs and river pebbles for his East-meets-West healings. Business grows when he is given the all-clear by the open-minded Sister Bonaventure, who decides to test the waters with a hot stone session and duly melts under Dragan's firm manipulations.