In a melodramatic (and appropriate) opening, it is a “dark and stormy night” when stranger Vladimir Dragan arrives in Cloonoila, a small village in rural Ireland. Handsome, white-bearded Vlad calls himself a poet and healer. He ingratiates himself into the community, offering rejuvenating massages. An Irish village is, of course, O’Brien’s (The Love Object) traditional domain, and as usual she conveys the close, warm, slightly claustrophobic web of small-town relationships. Vlad is eventually revealed as “the Beast of Bosnia,” a ruthless military leader responsible for thousands of deaths in the recent genocide. But meanwhile, Fidelma McBride, a beautiful, sexually starved young woman married to an older man, is transfixed by Vlad’s charismatic personality. She abandons discretion and arranges trysts so that Vlad can fulfill her yearning to have a child. Tragedy ensues: Fidelma loses her marriage, her self-respect, and is forced to leave Cloonoila. The scene shifts to a vibrantly intense London, where a penniless Fidelma must take menial jobs. Vlad’s trial for war crimes in The Hague is another jarringly effective shift of scene; it serves as the culmination of his victims’ harrowing memories, which are scattered throughout the narrative. (The title refers to the 11,541 empty chairs set out in Sarajevo in 2012 as a national monument to represent people killed during the siege by Bosnian Serb forces.) Against this dark subterranean thread O’Brien interjects lines from classic poets—Virgil, Yeats, Byron, Dickinson—who attest to the enduring power of love. Fidelma’s eventual redemption seems forced, but O’Brien’s eerily potent gaze into the nature of evil is haunting. Agent: Ed Victor, Ed Victor Ltd. (Mar.)
"A remarkable novel.... Extraordinary and unsettling."James Wood, New Yorker
"[An] extraordinary articulation of the lingering effects of trauma.... In the end, what leaves one in humbled awe of The Little Red Chairs is O'Brien's dexterity, her ability to shift without warning - like life - from romance to horror, from hamlet to hell, from war crimes tribunal to midsummer night's dream. And through it all, she embeds the most perplexing moral challenge ever conceived.... At a time when our best writers are such delightfully showy stylists, O'Brien...practices a darker, more subtle magic. Surprise and transformation lurk in even the smallest details, the most ordinary moments."Ron Charles, Washington Post
"Boldly imagined and harrowing.... Here, in addition to O'Brien's celebrated gifts of lyricism and mimetic precision, is a new, unsettling fabulist vision that suggests Kafka more than Joyce....A work of meditation and penance."Joyce Carol Oates, New York Times Book Review, "Editors' Choice"
"O'Brien achieves a tone at once mythical and contemporary, archetypal and particularized, and does wonderful things with voice and tense.... The Little Red Chairs has much to recommend it: beautiful writing, immense ambition, a vivid cast of supporting characters, and a rigorous humanitarian ethos."Priscilla Gilman, Boston Globe
"The great Edna O'Brien has written her masterpiece."Philip Roth
"One of [O'Brien's] best and most ambitious novels yet. The Little Red Chairs is personal and political; charming and grotesque; a novel of manners and a novel of monsters.... O'Brien's undiminished gifts as a storyteller draw us in and then awaken us to the limits of our own blinkered vision, the fragility of our own safe havens."Maureen Corrigan, NPR
"The Little Red Chairs is a daring invention set at the bloody crossroads where worlds collide: savage, tender and true."John Banville
"Edna O'Brien is both brilliant and brave. This book astonished me."Ann Patchett
"Reading The Little Red Chairs reaffirms a belief I've held since I first read Ms. O'Brien's work: She is, quite simply, a master."Kevin Powers
"Edna O'Brien's The Little Red Chairs is a gem of a novel, a text to treasure."Nuruddin Farah
"A memorable work of art for our unsettled times.... [O'Brien's] prose is as lyrically arresting as ever, her vision as astute, and as delicate. The Little Red Chairs is notable for its interweaving of the near-mythical and the urgent present, and for its unflinching exploration of the complex and lasting effects of human brutality.... At once arduous and beautiful, The Little Red Chairs marries myth and fact in a new form that journeys, as we do now, from Cloonoila to The Hague, from fairytale to contemporary agon."Claire Messud, Financial Times
"Provocative, moving, masterly.... O'Brien has a way of hypnotizing the reader."Fiona Wilson, Times (UK)
"A spectacular piece of work, massive and ferocious and far-reaching.... Holding you in its clutches from first page to last, it dares to address some of the darkest moral questions of our times while never once losing sight of the sliver of humanity at their core.... It's impossible not to be knocked out by the sly perfection of O'Brien's prose."Julie Myerson, Guardian, "Best Books of 2015"
"O'Brien's writing in this rich, wrenching book can be both lyrical and hard-edged, which suits a world where pain shared or a tincture of kindness can help ease the passage from losses."Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
"O'Brien retains every element of her gorgeous writing [in] her new novel.... Dark fairy-tale threads give the story a magic-realism effect, but ultimately...the author's twenty fourth book is starkly realistic. O'Brien speaks to contemporary political violence in a suitably audible voice."Brad Hooper, Booklist (starred review)
"Intoxicating.... O'Brien takes up her signature themesclose-knit communities, love and hate for the homeland, the plight of women, loss and desire, victimhood, romantic loveand casts their compassionate reach far beyond Ireland.... [The Little Red Chairs] asks the kinds of questions only a novel could dare; like a great novel must, it leaves many of them unanswered."
Kseniya Melnik, O Magazine
"A tour de force on the atrocities we humans commit and fall prey to, as well as an exploration of suffering and the curative power of story."Natalie Serber, San Francisco Chronicle
"Powerful.... With her inimitable storytelling genius, O'Brien explores the nature of evil."
Jane Ciabattari, BBC
"This 18th novel from O'Brien delivers noble truths as well as atrocities.... [Her] mastery of symbolism and natural description remain unmatched in modern fiction."
John G. Matthews, Library Journal (starred review)
"[This] may be the fiercest work of [O'Brien's] estimable career."Robert Weibezahl, BookPage
"O'Brien captures an extraordinary and almost holy innerness in each of her characters, however minor, and then plants those characters amidst the terrible velocity, the terrible pull of world events. O'Brien is truly at her best when she describes the private corners of minds, those quiet and wild corners, our meditative and our inspired selves, the self that Virginia Woolf called 'a wedge-shaped core of darkness, something invisible to others.'"Annalisa Quinn, NPR
"One of those cases where the tidal wave of hype is justified.... A book you are a bit better for having read, and how many novels can you say that about anymore?"Alex Balk, Awl
"A tense page turner and a timely one."Billy Heller, New York Post
"A capacious novel full of exquisitely rendered miniatures.... O'Brien has long been recognized as a gifted short story writer and here she employs her gift for closely observed moments in the service of a novel that is deeply intimate but global in its vision."Tom Beer, Newsday
"O'Brien is a masterful stylist, and her descriptions of the natural world, especially the countryside around Cloonoila, are striking in their precision and beauty."Norah Piehl, Bookreporter
"Engrossing, beautifully written, and offers the reader much to think about.... O'Brien is a superb storyteller."Corinna Lothar, Washington Times
Dr. Vlad Dragan, a holistic healer from the Balkans, arrives in the western Irish village of Cloonoila and quickly becomes its cure; married but childless, Fidelma McBride enlists the mysterious doctor to impregnate her. As the tale of their affair circulates, Dragan disappears, and a bereft Fidelma is devastated to learn that he is accused of the deaths of thousands during the Siege of Sarajevo (1991–96) and has been sent to the Hague to be tried for crimes against humanity. Rejected by her husband, Fidelma flees first to London, where she attempts to re-create her life as a refugee, and then to the Hague to settle matters with Dragan, assured of nothing except the vastness of his evil. Having lost her home, husband, and ideals, Fidelma opens herself to new possibilities, including hope. VERDICT This 18th novel from O'Brien (Saints and Sinners) delivers noble truths as well as atrocities. Her fictional depiction of Serbian war criminal Radovan Karadić will chill readers not only because it convincingly exposes the egoism of a rational madman but also because these horrors happened. O'Brien's mastery of symbolism and natural description remain unmatched in modern fiction. [See Prepub Alert, 9/14/15.]—John G. Matthews, Washington State Univ. Libs., Pullman
An Irish town is touched by the war crimes in Sarajevo when an outsider sleeps with a local woman and she's driven by shame and brutality into exile. Wearing a long dark coat and white gloves, the mysterious Vladimir Dragan arrives in Cloonoila, a backwater of western Ireland, sometime after 2012. He says he's from Montenegro and asserts that there are links between Ireland and the Balkans. He soon sets up shop as an alternative healer and sex therapist. For 40-year-old Fidelma, who's suffered two failed pregnancies and no longer expects much from her older husband, Vlad may be a last chance. She and the rest of Cloonoila don't know he's a wanted war criminal based on Radovan Karadzic, the man behind the siege of Sarajevo, where 11,541 red chairs were set out to commemorate the siege's victims in 2012, including 643 of the title's little red chairs for children killed. When men pursuing Vlad brutally abort Fidelma's new pregnancy, she chooses exile in London, joining the streams of refugees moving all over Europe, the unending diaspora fueled by war, fundamentalism, hatred. Some are among the half-dozen nationalities of the staff at Cloonoila's hotel who trade personal stories of displacement on a veranda after midnight. Fidelma also will hear refugees' tales in a makeshift London shelter run by a Sarajevo survivor where "the flotsam of the world" gather to share their narratives. As O'Brien (The Love Object, 2015, etc.) brought the larger world to Cloonoila through Vlad, she ends by giving her West Country woman a seat at Vlad's war-crimes trial. O'Brien's writing in this rich, wrenching book can be both lyrical and hard-edged, which suits a world where pain shared or a tincture of kindness can help ease the passage from losses.