January 09, 2018 at 6:04 AM

In Praise of Older Women Writers: Edna O’Brien’s The Little Red Chairs

January 09, 2018 at 6:04 AM

When Edna O’Brien published The Little Red Chairs in 2015, she was at the pinnacle of her career. Born in 1930, O’Brien achieved international recognition as a novelist, memoirist, playwright, poet and short story writer over a five decade period. Mary Robinson, the former President of Ireland, hailed O’Brien as one of the great creative writers of her generation. By giving voice to women and bringing their experiences of repressed sexuality to the page, O’Brien broke the silence on the inner lives of women in Irish fiction.   

     O’Brien burst on the literary scene in 1960 with the publication of her novel, The Country Girls. Written after she had moved to London, it’s the story of two young women who flee the restrictions of rural Ireland and their convent school to pursue a more liberated life in Dublin. Instead, they lose their innocence in ways that outraged the ultra-religious, ultra-conservative powers dominating Irish society at the time. The book and O’Brien’s two following novels, collected as The Country Girls Trilogy, were condemned by the Catholic Church of Ireland, denounced from parish pulpits, burned, and banned by the Irish Censorship Board for their frank depiction of sex and female desire.

     Nothing boosts a writer’s reputation quite like notoriety. The avalanche of negativity heaped on The Country Girls Trilogy undoubtedly helped to secure O’Brien’s reputation as an era-defining symbol of the struggle by Irish women writers to be heard. O’Brien never looked back. She went on to write fourteen more novels and create a body of work that is considered among the best writing of the twentieth century. She has received numerous awards for her fiction and nonfiction, including the European Prize for Literature for House of Splendid Isolation, the Lifetime Achievement award in Irish literature, and the Irish Book Award for her memoir Country Girl, published in 2012.

     Fortunately for her devoted fans, O’Brien continues to write, even after she read in a newspaper that she was, as an author, past her “sell-by date.” O’Brien was prompted to pen her memoir which she swore she would never write after she was told in a National Health clinic that her hearing was akin to a broken piano. Something about the phrase “broken piano” didn’t do justice to her sense of self.  In the prologue to her memoir, O’Brien wrote: “‘Broken piano’ in all its connotations kept saying itself to me, and yet I thought of life’s many bounties to have known the extremities of joy and sorrow, love, crossed love and unrequited love, success and failure, fame and slaughter….”

     In her memoir, O’Brien chronicled her early years in County Clare where she was born in a grand, but deteriorating house, attended a convent school and left, only to achieve celebrity status as a writer after departing from Ireland. Along the way, O’Brien trained as a pharmacist, eloped, gave birth to two sons, divorced, became a single mother, and threw wild parties in the swinging London of the 1960s. Her circle of friends included Hollywood giants, pop stars, and literary titans: Robert Mitchum, Marlon Brando, Richard Burton, Shirley MacLaine, Paul McCartney, Marianne Faithfull, R.D. Laing, Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter, Philip Roth and a multitude of others.  In America, she was the guest of Jackie Onasis and Hillary Clinton. Still, in the midst of high living and challenging personal circumstances, O’Brien went on writing and reading, “lucky enough,” she noted, “to be able to immerse myself in those two intensities that have buttressed my whole life.”

     O’Brien published The Little Read Chairs when she was eighty-five years old and clearly in command of her storytelling powers. An astute observer of upheaval and change, O'Brien said about the novel, "I wanted to take a dreadful situation and the havoc and harm that it yields, and show how it spirals out into the world at large.” The story begins with the arrival of a stranger from Montenegro in an unsuspecting, small Irish town. Masquerading as a healer and sex therapist, Dr. Vladimir Dragan brings the local population under his spell. Particularly gullible is the town beauty, Fidelma McBride who is unhappily married, desperate for a child after two miscarriages, and captivated by this exotic mystery man.

     But Fidelma’s illusions are soon shattered when Dr. Vlad is arrested, and his identity as a Bosnian war criminal is revealed. So, too, the reader becomes increasingly aware that the fictional Dr. Vladimir Dragan is based closely on Radovan Karadzic, the “Beast of Bosnia” who committed genocidal acts against the Muslim and Croatian populations during the Bosnian War (1992 – 1995). Karadzic lived as a fugitive for twelve years under the name of Dr. Dragan David Dabic before being captured in Belgrade in 2008. He was sent to The Hague to stand trial for crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing.

     The title of O’Brien’s novel refers to a commemorative installation of 11,541 empty red chairs set out in Sarajevo in 2012. The installation was intended to mark the twentieth anniversary of the siege of Sarajevo by Bosnian Serb forces and to remember victims of the massacre. O’Brien tells readers at the outset that “six hundred and forty-three small chairs represented the children killed by snipers and the heavy artillery fired from the surrounding mountains.”  

     However, The Little Red Chairs is only partially historical fiction. The characters in the novel, contaminated by the horrors of the outside world, soon take on a tragic momentum of their own. Fidelma, who suffers the most brutal violation and fall from grace, flees to London where she becomes part of the underclass of migrants and refugees displaced by war and persecution. In the final section of the novel, Fidelma travels to The Hague to confront Dr. Vlad at the International Criminal Tribunal.

     Throughout the novel, O’Brien demonstrates her ability to engage with contemporary issues, empower dispossessed women and look evil in the eye. Fidelma transforms herself into a resourceful heroine strong enough to help other women in a London homeless shelter.

     If a piano is playing in the background of The Little Red Chairs, it certainly is not a broken piano. O’Brien may be losing some of her hearing, but her ear is perfectly attuned with current times.  

  — Gail Benick, author of The Girl Who Was Born That Way

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