On March 29, against the elegant backdrop of books and crystal, sat the elegant Edna O’Brien. Irish America’s editor and co-founder, Patricia Harty, co-hosts Ellen McCourt, Joe & Mary Lou Quinlan and PEN, the international writers’ association, joined together to celebrate O’Brien, one of our greatest living writers, and The Little Red Chairs, her new book. Guests convened in the library of the Lotos Club, New York’s oldest literary society, to listen to her speak, then read. Her first novel in ten years, The Little Red Chairs is already being talked of as O’Brien’s masterpiece, quite an accomplishment since her prolific body of work spans almost 60 years.
It’s fitting that PEN, a fearless advocate for human rights, free expression and persecuted writers, chose to honor O’Brien because her latest book revisits the horror of ethnic cleansing in Eastern Europe. In a literary tour de force she brings Radovan Karadžić, the “Beast of Bosnia” (in the book, “Vuk”) home to Ireland where his evil seduces an entire town.
It’s fitting, also, that Harty and Irish America would pay tribute to this most Irish of writers who, among her other gifts, seems to be blessed by the proverbial “luck of the Irish.” The Little Red Chairs was released the same week Karadžić was finally convicted of war crimes in The Hague bringing his genocide back in the news. O’Brien’s book and attendant glowing reviews provide a meta-commentary on Karadžić and a horror the world should never forget.
Bestselling novelist (Let the Great World Spin) and close friend, Colum McCann, introduced O’Brien by relating the story of their first meeting in London many years ago. McCann was at the beginning of his career, visiting his publisher, only to find himself dissed and dismissed by everyone in the office. Everyone, that is, except the successful and famous O’Brien, who just happened to be there at the same time. In an act of great generosity, she asked McCann to her reception later that night and to do the opening reading. Overwhelmed, he showed up and, as he told the audience, “went on for over forty minutes.”
On this night, Edna’s reading went on, in her beautiful lilting voice, for less than 20 minutes. She began by describing the plot of her book, its central characters and asking if it’s possible that we are all “an emulsion of good and evil.” She concluded with a passage from the end of the book, a scene taking place in a shelter for women refugees of war. A chorus, in 35 languages, sings “Home:”
“Home. Home. Home. It rose and swelled, it reached to the rafters and through the walls, out onto the lit street, to country-side with its marsh and meadow, by graveyard and sheep fold, through dumbstruck forests, to the lonely savannas and reeking slums, over seas and beyond, to endless longed-for destinations. You would not believe how many words there are for home and what savage music can be wrung from it.”
In December, O’Brien will turn 85, so hard to accept by anyone who sees her, hears her, and, especially, reads her. At the Lotos Club, she floated among her guests wearing black sequins, a necklace designed for a Faerie Queen and a halo of copper hair. She told her audience that she doesn’t really mind being described as “on the cusp of 85” but when she’s referred to as “being in her ninth decade,” it somehow “gets” to her.
It shouldn’t. She’s as beautiful and timeless as her art. ♦