Sunday, 24 July 2016

The Little Red Chairs by Edna O'Brien

Growing up in Dublin the only thing I knew about Edna O'Brien was that she provoked controversy, invited to TV chat shows to generate coverage in the next day's papers. She was absent from the official literary scene, an “enfant terrible” of the 1960's who by the 1970's was a kind of “femme fatale” in the popular imagination - I didn't even know if she was still writing. In the 1920's James Joyce had created the sensual and sexual Molly Bloom and it was many decades before his writing was deemed publishable in Ireland. Writing in the 1960's, O'Brien broached similar themes in her characters, but it would be as long again before official Ireland was ready for a female author to be so earthy and frank.

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!