“We don’t know others. They are an enigma. We can’t know them, especially those we are most intimate with, because habit blurs us and hope blinds us to the truth.” – The Little Red Chairs
It’s been a hectic month, but I have been reading. I recently received an early Christmas present of Edna O’Brien’s most recent novel, The Little Red Chairs. Described as the author’s masterpiece by Philip Roth, I was intrigued and excited, as well as just being really stoked because I am a devoted fan of Edna O’Brien.
My love affair with her literary oeuvre began when I was about nineteen and was given read The Country Girls Trilogy to read. Published in the 1960s, the books are a semi-autobiographical account of O’Brien’s departure from the conservative rural Ireland of the 1950s to eventually settle in London, by way of persecution by her relatives for living with a man out of wedlock. This man was Ernest Gébler, by whom she had two children and was eventually separated. His monastic nature and cruel intensity appear as traits for many of her male characters and are certainly present in Dr Vlad in The Little Red Chairs. I saw Edna O’Brien speak at a church in south west England once on a late September afternoon with two great friends. She was mesmerising and beautiful.
I digress. The Little Red Chairs is full of voices. The narrative is constantly shifting in perspective, tense and person. O’Brien weaves a varied and perfect tapestry of characters who orbit the central relationship between Dr Vlad, a man who calls himself a healer and establishes himself in a rural Irish village, and the beautiful local draper’s wife, Fidelma. Dr Vlad is not who he claims to be (the little red chairs are a clue to his Balkan heritage), but the damage is already done by the time Fidelma comprehends the extent to which he has deceived her and her neighbours. Fidelma is forced to emigrate to London where she encounters people from all over the world searching for a place to call home.
O’Brien is an insightful storyteller. She is capable of describing moments succinctly and perfectly. The Little Red Chairs is harrowing, brilliant and difficult to put down. I read it recently, quite intensively. Last Sunday, December 6, in order to honour my Belgian upbringing, I ate tangerines and chocolate for the feast day of St Nicholas. I also drank hot apple juice infused with spices on the overcast afternoon outside a Christmas Bazaar on Dublin’s north side, allowing myself to begin to feel festive.