The Little Red Chairs by Edna O’Brien

The little red chairs

Link to Amazon

Just in case you were in any doubt ( As I have only mentioned it perhaps a few hundred times on this blog!) I am a HUGE fan of this incredible writer.   For me, she stands head and shoulders above so many others.   So I sat down with great anticipation and much excitement to read this novel. I was not disappointed.

The little red chairs in the title represent the 643 children that were killed by snipers and heavy artillery during the siege of Sarajevo by Bosnian Serb forces.   On the 6th April 2012 to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the siege, 11,541 red chairs were laid out in rows along Sarajevo high street to represent those killed.  643 of these were little chairs, to represent the children.

The novel is based loosely on the butcher of Bosnia – Radovan Karadzic.   The story is about a man who arrives in the small fictional Irish town of Cloonoila.  He calls himself Dr Vlad and claims to be a healer/sex therapist and all round good guy.   Slowly, the inhabitants of this small town fall under his spell.   In particular Fidelma who is in a loveless, childless marriage and who longs for a child more than anything else.   When she and Vlad meet, her life will be affected in ways she couldn’t have possibly imagined.  I am not going to say anymore about the story, for fear of spoiling what is a gripping, traumatic and extraordinary read.

Edna O’Brien breaks all the traditional rules of writing and in so doing, creates a masterpiece.  The narrative voice changes often, the tenses change often and the dialogue can last for pages.  Yet every word is perfectly in its place and she can bring a scene to life like no other writer I know.     Here is one such example as we meet some of the characters of this small village in the West of Ireland, who have heard there’s a stranger in town:

‘Desiree was first, a strapping girl in her pink mini-dress, her stout arms bare and a coat over her head, bursting for news. ‘God I could do with a fella, haven’t had a fella for half a year,’ she said, curious to know if the guy was presentable and married or single. Did he wear a ring?  The Muggivan sisters were next, slinking in, in their grey coats and their knitted caps and ordering peppermint cordial….and Mona, alerted by the hilarity, came down from her living quarters, and like any customer sat on one of the high stools and ordered her usual tipple, which was a large port wine with a slice of orange….There was also Plodder policeman, Diarmuid the ex-Schoolmaster and Dante the town punk.”

Following this is a hilarious scene where they all get a bit raucous and argumentative on hearing the stranger is a self proclaimed sex therapist.  My favourite line being:

‘Sweet Jesus,’ the Misses Muggivans said blessing themselves.’

However don’t be fooled, this is not a lighthearted read by any means.  There are some scenes that I found almost too shocking to read.   O’Brien describes life in a small Irish village to perfection, and when the action moves to London, the pace increases as does the intrigue.  Edna O’Brien’s descriptions are just so breathtakingly rich and her prose is unique and beautiful.

The Little Red Chairs reminds us of the horrors or war, the brutality of humans and yet also, and more importantly, the kindness of humans and how it only takes one person to save you.

It is incredible to think that Edna O’Brien is  now in her eighties.  All her worldly wisdom and incredible powers as a writer are alive and well – praise be!




Morvern Callar by Alan Warner

morvern callar.gifMorvern Callar at Amazon

Being a prolific reader, I was quite surprised that I hadn’t heard of Alan Warner until now.  Particularly as I spent 5 years living in Scotland.  This book was a recommendation for me, as I am currently looking to read some strong first person narrative voices for my own writing project.

There is only one word I can think of for this book – astonishing.

Morvern Callar is a 21-year-old girl who works in a supermarket in a remote Scottish highland sea port.  She comes home to find her boyfriend has killed himself and is lying dead on the kitchen floor.  I know – that would put me off reading most books and when I read the premise I thought – oh no thanks.  But DON’T let that put you off.  The story is told from Morvern’s perspective.  The narrative is steely strong, matter-of-fact and lyrical.  I could no better than to steal Hilary Mantel’s description – it is a stylistic dazzler.

The dialogue is a strange mix of Scottish slang and the rural dialect that hails from that area of Scotland.  Morvern is uneducated, hedonistic, but also incredibly brave and strong.  The two people closest to her are her best friend  Lanna and her foster father Red Hanna.   As the story unfolds Lanna’s almost obsessive fascination with Morvern wakes her up to the truth that Lanna is not to be trusted.   Lanna cannot handle Morvern’s emotional self-sufficiency and the needier she becomes, the more Morvern withdraws.

Morvern’s actions are shocking to the core and yet we understand her need to survive and her search for some level of beauty and meaning in the world.  She describes simple pleasures and a large part of the novel is dedicated to the portrayal of whatever music she is currently listening to on her Walkman, which is essential to her mood.  

A nostalgic trip back through the 80’s give this book an added dimension and the pleasures enjoyed by Morvern and Lanna, although a bit extreme to most of us, bring back memories of youthful holidays in hot climates, when sunbathing and clubbing all night were happiness itself.

The descriptions of the beauty she sees around her when abroad are in deep contrast to the chaos of her own life.  The writing is masterful: “The sun slid up over the mimosas till cloud out at sea started to curl and light fell in masses on the water; the bottom of a cloud bank broke away while a bar of sky was stained pinkish then the purple- like shadows changed into a peach roof above.”

Morvern never states what she is feeling and the narrative is far stronger for it.   Instead we come to know how she is coping through her actions and her perceptions of her every growing world.

This is one of the most unusual books I have ever read and it is going straight into my top ten reads.  I imagine it may be marmite to some, but if you are looking for something wholly different, exquisitely written and viscerally haunting, then buy it now.   A revelation.