Edna O’Brien’s The Little Red Chairs packs the surprise of a jack-in-the-box

This is a powerfully magnetic and mighty strange novel about a powerfully magnetic and mighty strange man.

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The arrival of Edna O’Brien’s first novel in ten years, hyped to the hilt by the publisher and proclaimed as her “masterpiece” in a cover quote by Philip Roth, will not disappoint. Her debut novel, The Country Girls, which broke the silence on sexual and social issues in postwar Ireland, was burned and banned when it appeared in 1960. Over half a century later, O’Brien is the grande dame of Irish literature. Nevertheless, The Little Red Chairs comes out at you with the surprise of a jack-in-the-box.

On a dark and stormy night, a cloaked man appears in the Irish village of Cloonoila. “A woman brought me here,” the stranger explains to the bartender. Pale-faced and weeping, this woman, whose name, Aisling, means “dream”, had said to him, “I am of Ireland.” The stranger’s beloved homeland, he reveals, is a place of snow and wolves in which the glacial lakes are known as “the eyes of the mountains”. The Irish and the Balkan Celts, he continues, are “blood brothers”, both having suffered atrocities. The inhabitants of Cloonoila, believing that a prophet has come among them, are instantly bewitched. What follows is a tale in which dream visions blend into what James Joyce called the “nightmare” of history.

The stranger calls himself Dr Vladimir Dragan, or Dr Vlad. “Dragan?” asks the local policeman. “Is it related to Dracula?” “No,” Vlad replies, “but that’s an interesting variation.” As a child he was known as Vuk, meaning “wolf”, and throughout the novel he is variously compared to Romulus, Vlad the Impaler, Gilgamesh, Rasputin, the Prince of Darkness, Dr Faustus, a “Red Indian” and Charles Bronson. In the Balkans, where he is wanted for war crimes, Dr Vlad is known as the Beast of Bosnia and O’Brien has modelled him on Radovan Karadzic, who, as a fugitive in Belgrade, reinvented himself as an alternative psychologist called Dr Dragan David Dabic.

A writer of poetry – “macho” and “rigmarole stuff”, his landlady thinks, “about bullets being slender and majestic” – Dr Vlad compares himself to Ovid, another exile, and to Virgil. His mission, he reveals to the local padre, is to do good in Cloonoila and thus he sets himself up as a sex therapist and healer. In his long black smock, with his white hair in a topknot and his beard flowing (the shamanic disguise also adopted by Karadzic), Vlad works his magic hands over the flesh of nuns in wool knickers.

Wandering the woods collecting fauna and flora – hawthorn for the heart, willow for the gall bladder, lime flower for women going through menopause – Vlad also wanders into the dreams of the draper’s middle-aged wife, Fidelma McBride. In one such dream, he delivers the child she longs for. In reality, Vlad and Fidelma begin an affair. On their first date, they share childhood memories: she tells him about “the skeleton of a rotting horse that died on us” and he tells her about the time his father made him taste the blood of a freshly killed wolf.

When Fidelma sneaks back home, impregnated by her lover, her husband is holding the squeezed and oozing remains of a bat, one of two that he found in the washbasin, “clung together like vampires”. Soon, in a particularly horrific episode, there will be a scene involving a stake.

Throughout the story, other stories circulate, all of unremitting misery. When the kitchen staff at the local hotel – “Irish, Burmese, Italian, Spanish, Czech, Slovakian, Polish” – share their hellish experiences, it transpires that the family of one of the workers was murdered by Dr Vlad. Even the dogs in the kennels where she finds work, Fidelma realises, are locked in their past traumas but, with dogs, “One never gets the backstory.”

When Vlad’s true identity is revealed, he is carted off to The Hague to be indicted for genocide, torture and ethnic cleansing. Thrown out of their home by her shamed husband, Fidelma now joins the wretched of the Earth. In its second half, The Little Red Chairs becomes a state-of-the-nation novel. Working as a night cleaner in London, Fidelma hears more stories about “fractured lives” and begins to confront her own, which she can barely put into words. Her new world consists of “nobodies, mere numbers . . . the hunted, the haunted, the raped, the defeated, the mutilated, the banished”. While she is consumed by self-hatred – “When I menstruate I want to wipe my face in it, to add to the defilement” – Vlad, on trial, is a red-eyed, roaring nutter.

This is a powerfully magnetic and mighty strange novel about a powerfully magnetic and mighty strange man. O’Brien has always told the truth about women and sex and here she confronts the seductive appeal of evil. But, for all its tragedy, The Little Red Chairs ends with comedy when Fidelma and her friends in exile put on a performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream – the play in which a queen is bewitched by a herb and falls in love with an ass.

The Little Red Chairs by Edna O’Brien is published by Faber & Faber, 320pp, £18.99

Frances Wilson is an author, biographer and critic, whose works include The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth. Her most recent book is How to Survive the Titanic, or the Sinking of J Bruce Ismay. She reviews for the TLS, the Telegraph and the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 12 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the threat to Britain

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