Edna O’Brien’s acclaimed new novel, her first in a decade, is reviewed.
Celts have always believed in an invisible spirit world running parallel to our visible world, a mystical universe that has given Irish storytellers a rich folklore of the supernatural. From this tradition comes the oft-told story (undoubtedly a cautionary tale for impressionable girls) of a handsome stranger who arrives at a small village and soon enchants all the women. But at a céilidh a local biddy spots his dancing feet – cloven hooves! – the devil has come to town.
Only Edna O’Brien, a most profound Celt and one of literature’s greatest writers, could transpose this fable to the horror of 20th century genocide. Only she could be so ambitious, interweaving literary allusions, prayer, war, fairy tales, pop culture, and Irish mysticism into a study of evil. Her prodigious body of work spans six decades, yet her genius has never been more evident, or more relevant, than in the The Little Red Chairs, her first novel in ten years and a masterpiece.
One winter night (yes, a dark and stormy one), a mysterious stranger walks into a pub in Cloonoila, a gossipy backwater in Sligo and presents himself as a New Age shaman, herbalist, healer, and sex therapist. To the rapt crowd, he’s both exotic and monkish, a Christlike figure, albeit one with a man bun. He explains his presence by saying he’s from the Balkans, “blood brothers to the Celts,” and, playing to myths encoded in their DNA, reveals he was summoned there by a vision of a tearful woman saying, “I am of Ireland.” The crowd realizes that the foreigner had been summoned by the woman of the Sidhe, who will bring spring and the abundance of nature.
The shaman’s claim that the Balkans and the Irish are “blood brothers” may be hyperbolic but the regions have a similar history: both are severed by borders – fault lines of blood, imposed by conquerors – that have fomented centuries of tribalism and religious conflicts. O’Brien had earlier explored her country’s Troubles, particularly in the book, The House of Splendid Isolation and short story, “Black Flower.” Now, after years of research in Eastern Europe, she brings the Balkan struggle home to Ireland.
While his name, Vlad Dragan (alternately, Vuk, meaning “Wolf”) almost reeks of sulfur, the townsfolk of Cloonoila begin to revere him as a latter-day Druid. Vuk, the most alpha of wolves, leads his gullible pack on nature walks, meditation classes, and herbal lectures. His admirers include even Father Damien (after Vuk dropped “sex therapist” from his card), Sister “Bonny” Bonaventure who found his stone massages strangely enervating, and the local garda, “Plodder Pat.” He seduces almost everybody saving some skeptics who dismiss him as a phony, a gobshite. Then there’s the foreign dishwasher who erupts in hysterics upon seeing him. Je znam ko si ti, he says – “I know who you are!” It’s a frightening and violent scene that presages the rest of book.
The villagers – the bickering book club, country boys in dreadlocks, and Widow Mona, devoted to “Padre Pio, in whom she had unswerving faith…and romance novels of which she could not get enough” – all provide comic relief. The humor is essential since, midway through the narrative, The Little Red Chairs becomes a horror story.
The most besotted of Vuk’s followers is the town beauty, Fidelma McBride. At 40, Fidelma is trapped in a loveless marriage and, desperate for a child, enlists him to help with her infertility. She’s soon in love, but to say more would be to spoil a great read.
No one writes better about women, their inner thoughts, yearning, and sexuality than Edna O’Brien. And, always, she brings the passions of her own tumultuous life to her female characters. Fidelma, like O’Brien, scandalized her village, shamed her family, and left for London, to be forever an exile. Both women are “of Ireland,” adoring its dreamy beauty while deploring its priest-ridden legacy. Both are favored with physical beauty – the book’s character lovely in the Irish tradition of black hair and blue eyes, and the author, ageless at 84, illuminated by a halo of red-gold hair, looks like no one else. It’s easy to see why she was at the center of London’s Swinging Sixties, hosting legendary parties and courted by everyone from Beckett to Brando.
But who, exactly, is Vuk? In addition to his other endowments, Vuk fancies himself a poet. He plans an expedition for the locals to visit Yeats’s grave where he will recite his own poetry. His followers crowd into a tour bus where a senile (and sentient) woman points at him, flatly asking, “Is he the devil?”
To find the answer requires an odyssey through the underworld to arrive at the too-real world of The Little Red Chairs. It’s a tale of love, tragedy, and redemption, a great gift brought to us by a master. ♦