The Syrian refugee crisis this year has made us aware more than ever of the plight of groups of people who have been displaced from their homes and who have to seek refuge in other countries. War, dictatorial oppression and religious extremism give some people no choice but to seek a life elsewhere. In “The Little Red Chairs” Edna O’Brien refers readers back to one of the greatest regional crises in recent history. During the Bosnian war thousands of people in Sarajevo lost their lives as the city was attacked by Serb forces between 1992 and 1995. Many of these people were civilians caught in the crossfire. In 2012 an installation of red chairs in the capital city commemorated the loss of these lives - the most heart-wrenching of all being the 643 little red chairs representing the slain children. It’s remarked in this novel that “there was a time when Sarajevo was thought to be the biggest issue in the world, but that time was no more.” O’Brien takes us back to this time via a circuitous route where the reverberations of war and the people displaced by it are given life in her dramatic and emotionally-complex story.
In a small Irish town of Cloonoila a stranger arrives seeking shelter. This man who becomes an object of intense curiosity soon establishes himself in the town as Dr Vlad, a controversial healer practicing alternative medicine and sex therapy (a practice quickly censored by the disgruntled priesthood.) He’s a man who gradually integrates into the community as he’s desired by many lonely women and inspires friendship with his kindness. His vast learning and cultural interests charm many. Fidelma is a married woman who is most affected by the doctor as she craves a child her husband can’t (or won’t) give her. They engage in a love affair. However, Dr Vlad has a secret past which causes a cataclysmic shock in the community when it is revealed. Fidelma’s life is rocked where the events of the wider world flood into her own circumscribed reality leading to its total annihilation. Now this woman who was so established in her own community must seek refuge elsewhere. She embarks on a process of discovery both to better understand herself and the ever-changing world around her.
More than any one person, this is a story that belongs to many different immigrants who have settled in Ireland or England. O’Brien gives us the voices of people who work in an array of difficult, low-paid jobs and meet in groups which try to help people who have been displaced, especially a group which supports women who’ve experienced horrendous levels of oppression. These voices burst vibrantly from the page and startle with the pure facts of their experience. We hear people who have escaped their circumstances and who are going through the process of building new lives. “They all carried memories and the essence of their first place, known only to them.” These voices aren’t meant to represent any political message, but show the world as a morally-complex landscape where sinister regimes have led to individual acts of desperation. It also shows how seductive it can be to oppress when you have been oppressed. Ultimately, the author presents how resilient people can be leading them to reinvent themselves and find new communities.