Edna O’Brien’s latest novel begins in the place to which O’Brien always eventually returns: a remote town in western Ireland, filled with lonely souls and limited opportunities. Until opportunity knocks, in the form of a handsome stranger hailing from Montenegro and calling himself Dr. Vladimir Dragan. When he shows up advertising his services as a practitioner of alternative medicine, the women fall hard.
One moons that “maybe he’ll bring a bit of Romance into our lives.” A second — a 60-year-old nun — emerges from a massage filled with “a wildness such as she had not known since her youth.” A third, the fortysomething Fidelma, dreams Vlad might give her the child she’s never had, in a passionless marriage to a man 20 years her senior.
Such dreams turn sour when the truth emerges: Their charming doctor is also known as the Beast of Bosnia and is the most wanted man in Europe. Loosely based on Radovan Karadzic, with whom he shares a love of poetry and a post-Bosnia life as an alternative healer, Vlad is eventually arrested as the genocidal mastermind responsible for Sarajevo and Srebrenica.
O’Brien has previously written about a terrorist on the run, in a novel featuring another man known as a “Beast” who belonged to the IRA: House of Splendid Isolation. But Red Chairs reflects no comparable interest in the psychology of a killer.
O’Brien’s model here is instead Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World, also set in western Ireland and also featuring a con artist turning a town upside down — for reasons saying less about him than about the town’s inhabitants, within whom he lets loose pent-up frustration and unacknowledged desire for more than what they have.
This is familiar O’Brien territory, and Red Chairs is best as O’Brien underscores once again what such moments of crisis reveal regarding how little we ever truly know of others — and, particularly, how little men know of women. “We can’t know them, especially those we are most intimate with,” a husband ruefully states. “Habit blurs us and hope blinds us to the truth.”
But halfway through Red Chairs, O’Brien makes an abrupt swerve, whisking Fidelma to London and turning her attention to the plight of refugees among whom Fidelma lives and associates. “They’re the ‘nobodies,’ ” Fidelma reflects. “The hunted, the haunted, the raped, the defeated, the mutilated, the banished, the flotsam of the world, unable to go home.”
Red Chairs profiles many of them. The majority are women; like Fidelma, many of them have suffered as a result. Some come from Bosnia; through their stories, we’ll learn the meaning of the red chairs in O’Brien’s title: a memorial to those killed during the brutal siege of Sarajevo.
Such Bosnian stories nominally tie this often lifeless and diffuse second section of the novel to the capture of Vlad, who will himself re-emerge in a final, even less successful third section, set at The Hague during his war crimes trial.
But the subtext throughout these portions of the book is the same as it was in the first: Can one ever go home again? And does one even want to, given all the reasons one fled in the first place?
Framing these questions in terms of O’Brien herself is easy; a writer who is frequently autobiographical in her fiction, she fell for (and married) an Eastern European, also thereafter wound up in London and also has a love-hate relationship with the country she left behind.
There’s been more love than hate from O’Brien in recent years, in both her fiction and in her memoir Country Girl. So too, here. O’Brien closes by invoking the famous ending of Joyce’s The Dead, with a similar love song to an Ireland that always haunts her work — even when, in a novel like this one, she once again tries to leave.
Mike Fischer reviewed this book for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.