Fiona Gruber reviews 'The Little Red Chairs' by Edna O’Brien

Fiona Gruber reviews 'The Little Red Chairs' by Edna O’Brien

The Little Red Chairs

by Edna O’Brien

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.

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Published in March 2016, no. 379
Fiona Gruber

Fiona Gruber

Fiona Gruber is a journalist and producer with twenty years experience writing and broadcasting across the arts as a commentator, profile writer, and reviewer. She currently divides her time between Australia and the UK.

Gruber's work has appeared in The Australian, The Times Literary Supplement, Australian Book Review, The Guardian, The Age, Sydney Morning Herald, Opera Now, History Today, and Art World Australia.

Her profiles of well-known writers and playwrights include John Banville, Margaret Drabble, Simon Callow, Marina Warner, A. L. Kennedy, Francis Wheen, Michelle de Kretser, Toni Jordan, David Francis, Jane Smiley, Angus Trumble, Chris Womersley, David Harrower, Richard Bean, Jez Butterworth, and Moisés Kaufman.

For ABC Radio National alongside sporadic appearances as an opinionated commentator on hot topics, Gruber has made a series of features on writers, artists, theatre makers, and explorers for The Book Show, Books and Arts Daily and Hindsight. These include artists John Wolseley and Vera Möller, writers Robert Macfarlane, Patricia Cornelius, Charlotte Wood, Francis Wheen and Alex Miller, actor Lisa Dwan, and explorer John Helder Wedge.

Gruber also worked for ABC TV as a researcher and producer on its Sunday Arts program.

She produced and hosted The Opening a live-to-air weekly radio arts show on PBSFM between 2003–10, notable for its mix of the very local with the rather famous. And in 2011 she was a regular on ABC 774 talking arts with veteran presenter Derek Guille.

Gruber received a Green Room Award in 2005 for co-founding and hosting ‘Gert's Sunday Salon’, a raffish arts and cabaret club in Melbourne’s Fitzroy.

In 2013 Fiona Gruber started a series of podcasts for the Melbourne Theatre Company which explore ideas around the plays on stage, the wider world of theatre, and the even wider world influencing stage selection.

Alongside her journalism she's currently finishing off a biography of nineteenth-century Australian entrepreneur Alice Cornwell: Victorian gold miner, proprietor of the London Sunday Times, and breeder of miniature black pug dogs.

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