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  • Gail Wilson Kenna

An Astonishing and Gobsmacking Novel: The Little Red Chairs

In 2008, Edna O'Brien watched the televised arrest of the Butcher of Bosnia, Radovan Karadžić, who had been in semi-hiding for thirteen years. In that same period, O'Brien had begun her memoir, Country Girl, which ends with this short paragraph. "At home I turned on all the lights, including the red lamp in the upstairs room, and it did not seem empty at all; it was full of light, like a room readying itself for a banquet."

Four years later in a recorded 2012 Guardian interview, Edna admitted that she had not known if the 'banquet' was a new novel, a new lover, or possibly death. Her answer came in 2015 with the publication of The Little Red Chairs: a brilliant blend of old literary motifs, plots, and patterns. In other words, mythological archetypes: Meeting & overcoming the monster, voyage & return, renewal & rebirth.

To write the novel, Edna posited a question: What would happen if, before his arrest, the Butcher & Beast of Bosnia had arrived one dark night in a town in Western Ireland? From this question she created Dr. Vlad Dragan, posing as a healer, the Pooka man of Irish myth, a creature of Fomorian darkness, a "Lucifer lying liar", a Humbaba from Gilgamesh.

In The Little Red Chairs, a reader gets the word, Gilgamesh, in the novel's first line. And if the reader does not remember Babylonian myth and those clay tablets in cuneiform, no matter! Edna will use Humbaba, the fire-breathing dragon and fanged beast from the oldest of all epic stories. And her protagonist- heroine, Fidelma McBride, if unaware of Gilgamesh, will come to understand the Serbian myth in which the wolf is entitled to the lamb. Yet O' Brien gives her reader a twist on that old Serbian saying: Fidelma is the one who pursues Dr. Vlad because of her fateful yearning for a child. In this three-part novel, Fidelma will come to understand the words of her poet-hero, William Butler Yeats, when he wrote,"…the world is more full of weeping than you can know."

In an earlier O'Brien blog, I quoted Paul McCartney who sang to her boys… Edna O'Brien/ She'll blow your mind away.

I think she does this for the reader who does not flee to quick judgment and forgetfulness. Edna, in her story telling, wisely embraces the comic and tragic; and goddess-like, she does whatever she damn well wants with the novel's form and content : blending many narrative voices, prosaic and poetic; and fusing the actual and mythic, the plausible and implausible, in 300 gobsmacking pages. This description should suggest that the novel cannot be read once; and that a reader needs to mark the novel and look up the wondrous and often unfamiliar words and phrases. Read to keep the mind from rotting and to seek greater consciousness of head and heart, I remind myself daily. And I believe The Little Red Chairs is a novel of persuasive and palatable truth for our own desperate times.

Next week: Edna O'Brien's 2019 novel, Girl, which I have begun to understand.

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