The Little Red Chairs by Edna O’Brien
Genre: Contemporary / Historical
Publisher: Faber & Faber
My Rating: 4/5
Synopsis: When a man who calls himself a faith healer arrives in a small, west-coast Irish village, the community is soon under the spell of this charismatic stranger from the Balkans. One woman in particular, Fidelma McBride, becomes enthralled in a fatal attraction that leads to unimaginable consequences.
This book is a difficult one to rate and review for me. I originally picked it up for three reasons:
- The cover is gorgeous
- It had rave reviews from the critics
- I wanted to get out of my comfort zone a little
This book certainly did get me out of my comfort zone, but I’m not sure it’s the “masterpiece” that many critics have called it. To me, a masterpiece is something like Virginia Woolf’s The Years. The scope and emotion in that book just blew me away. In fact, after studying Woolf on a whim at university, she has become my favourite novelist, and her books are definitely what I would describe as masterpieces. The Little Red Chairs, however, didn’t quite live up to the standards of literary greats like Woolf. There were actually similarities between this novel and Woolf’s style, but it just never quite reached “masterpiece” status.
Anyway, Woolf comparisons aside, let’s start with what I liked about this book:
It was an original and bleak story. The novel deals for the most part with refugees, particularly refugees of the Bosnian War, but also refugees as a whole. It was a really interesting study into the fear and isolation of asylum seekers, and resonates particularly with the current situation the world is in. People are fleeing Syria and surrounding countries in a desperate attempt to escape conflict, yet they are not being met with kindness and understanding in the places they seek asylum, but are met with hatred and disgust. O’Brien captures the fear and homesickness of refugees and paints them in a highly sympathetic light, which I really loved. We are told numerous stories of refugees who we only meet for a couple of pages, but all of their stories are important.
The writing is also very good. O’Brien is a long established writer, so she knows what she’s doing. However, the POV, whether it be 1st or 3rd person, often changed from chapter to chapter and it was a little jarring as I tried to figure out exactly what character I was currently dealing with. But overall, this made for an interesting perspective and curbed any potential monotony. Also, O’Brien writes excellent dialogue, so you really get a feel for the characters.
So what didn’t I like? A few things actually. Even though I gave this book 4/5, there are still a few things I didn’t really enjoy. For starters, there’s a fair bit of gore. Now, if you follow my blog, you’ll know that I have no problem with gore, and horror is one of my favourite genres. But a lot of the gore in this novel was unnecessary. I think it was just placed there for shock value. So instead of the gore being needed to move the story along, it was just a bit grotesque. I’ll give you a couple of examples:
“He wore an old brown leather glove that was usually kept on a shelf in the potting shed and thrusting it at her, he said, ‘Look, look.’ Then he opened it to reveal the ooze of a bat that he had squeezed to death…. he squashed it to death, blood and pus spewing out like slime, black and bloodied.”
“The driver missed his grip, swerved, then skidded, as the car sank into a hollow, where a sheep had gone to rest and was summarily pulped.”
Now, I’m not sure if it’s just me, or if it’s because I’m an animal lover, but both those descriptions seem unnecessary. I get that in the first passage the character is angry, so he took his frustration out on something else, but he could have taken it out on anything! I’ve never known a person to squeeze an animal to death, except for those sick animal abusers you see on the news. The instance with the sheep, however, didn’t fuel the story at all, it was just a small bit of description that I didn’t think was needed. Maybe it was to show the driver’s haste, but there’s many other ways you can show reckless driving without needing to talk about a sheep being pulped.
Maybe it’s just because I’m an animal lover, like I said, but this gore seemed unnecessary to me, and I’m not normally squeamish.
Another thing was the main character, Fidelma, wasn’t overly likeable, but I’m not sure if she was meant to be. I certainly felt sympathy for her, but I didn’t feel much of an attachment. She was a woman who had made some silly mistakes and had been selfish. I sympathised with her plight, but didn’t deeply care for her.
Overall, it was a well written novel and definitely deserves some of the praise it got. It was an interesting story, with an excellent take on the struggle refugees face. I do recommend it, but I wouldn’t say to expect a “masterpiece”.
Have you read any of Edna O’Brien’s other novels? Would you read this book? What do you think of the gore I described? Let me know in the comments below!