According to Philip Roth, The Little Red Chairs is “a masterpiece”; the best novel Edna O’Brien has ever written. I wonder if Edna greeted the accolade with a gleam in her eye and her trademark mischievous smile. It is, after all ironic that her status as a novelist is recognised more on the world stage than in her own country. Her early years as a novelist were marked by scorn and derision in her native Ireland. It’s taken more than sixty years for the country to take her back into their bosom. Last year (long overdue) O’Brien was honoured as a Saoithe of Aosdána, Ireland’s highest literary honour, and with it came a presidential apology for the pious disdain which led to a ban on her books for decades and accusations she had a too-favourable attitude to the Provisional IRA.
But O’Brien has never been a lady who sought a quiet life or opted for the safe topics in her books, despite attracting the soubriquet “a “bargain basement Molly Bloom” at one time. In The Little Red Chairs she turns her attention to the monstrous acts perpetrated by a tyrant and to his innocent citizens who are forced to take flight and become stateless refugees. It’s a tremendously haunting novel delivered by someone who has a keenly observant eye and understanding of human nature.