But now, Edna O'Brien is the “grande dame” of Irish literature. I've heard her give intimate interviews on radio shows, eloquent in an arch and grandiose style that I find a bit over-bearing. She's still writing too, 85 years old. I thought I'd try her latest novel, half-expecting it to also be over-bearing and perhaps tired and dated. Was I ever wrong!
The Little Red Chairs is a relatively short novel, that is sometimes tender and occasionally quite vicious. It's not just that it packs a punch; it knocks you down under a hail of kicks and punches leaving you bewildered and hurt, then picks you up and soothes the pain. It's the work of an author who has honed her craft over decades, but who still possesses the anger and energy to make that craft count.
No summary can do it justice. I could say that it is based around a woman in a childless marriage who feels her life slipping away; her love affair with the suave newly-arrived immigrant from Eastern Europe who is the talk of the small Irish town; his violent past (is he based on Radovan Karadzic?); how all their lives are changed; her journey through love, loss, physical and mental suffering, and, acceptance of a sort, from Ireland to London to The Hague. But as important as the plot is, what's most remarkable is the power of O'Brien's characters and images, her understanding of small-town Ireland and how immigration has changed it, her appreciation of how it is to be an emigrant from a small town and an immigrant to an unfriendly city, and more.
Edna O'Brien is 85. I hope she has a few more novels in her - I'll be reading them!
- A review of The Little Red Chairs (Julie Myerson in The Guardian)
- A 2015 interview with Edna O'Brien (Patrick Freyne in The Irish Times)