The Little Red Chairs - 2015 Reading Challenge

In my experience, there are few more exciting feelings than when I come home to a package on my doorstep that contains a brand new book. Add to that the little thrill of knowing it's an advanced reader copy, and you've got yourself one happy book reviewer. Allen & Unwin are wonderful for providing me so many amazing books to read this year. Edna O'Brien is a well-respected Irish author who has been writing for nearly 60 years, but hasn't produced a novel for the past ten. The Little Red Chairsis her latest offering, and it's been hailed by Philip Roth as her masterpiece.

The novel opens with this paragraph, explaining the title and preparing the reader for what is to come:

On the 6th of April 2012, to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the start of the siege of Sarajevo by Bosnian Serb forces, 11,541 red chairs were laid out in rows along the eight hundred metres of the Sarajevo high street. One empty chair for every Sarajevan killed during the 1,425 days of siege. Six hundred and forty-three small chairs represented the children killed by snipers and the heavy artillery fired from the surrounding mountains.

A book with a color in the title

A stranger turns up in the tiny town of Cloonoila, Ireland. He presents himself as an alternative medicine doctor, a sex therapist, and a poet. The small-town folks are suspicious of him at first, but the village beauty Fidelma comes to see him as her savior: the man who may be able to rescue her from a childless, unhappy marriage. But as soon as all her dreams seem to be coming true, they discover this man is not what he seems, and is wanted for terrible crimes in the country he comes from.

It's difficult to review this book without giving too much away, which I certainly don't want to do. I'll start by saying that I think it is highly worth the read, so I definitely don't want to spoil anything for you. There's no denying O'Brien's deft hand with the English language and her mastery of prose. In fact, her imagery is often so vivid and intense that when she describes the horrific things that happen to some of her characters, I felt physically ill while reading them.

As this book deals in a fictional sense with actual crimes against humanity that happened in Bosnia, there were a few times where the details were nearly unbearable to read -- a new experience for me as a reader who normally soldiers on even through the most gory passages.

However, there were also plenty of beautiful things to break up the terror that O'Brien so realistically portrays, and her descriptions of the many relationships Fidelma finds herself forming with other people in both Ireland and England are wonderful to read. This book embodies the warmth, good cheer, and ridiculous friendliness that I encountered when I was in a small town in Ireland, and I have no problem believing the events as they unfold in the book.

The one thing that made this less than a five-star experience for me was the switches in points of view and tense that occur at random times throughout. Most of the book is written in third person, but every so often, a chapter jumps out in first person for no apparent reason. Sometimes things are written in past tense, sometimes in present -- again, for no obvious reason. I saw another reviewer gush about this as an effortless demonstration of writing mastery, but I disagree.

It's not enough to me that the author knows why he or she makes such a big decision as to suddenly put a character who was previously in third person into first person for one chapter only. It may only be my opinion, but in the case of this book, I found the sudden shifts confusing and pointless. But, all things considered, it's a minor complaint in an otherwise beautiful book.

I will warn you, though. It's not for the faint of heart. There are some images of life for those in war-torn Bosnia that will stick with you. By all means, I encourage you to pick it up. But just know that the things you will read are not easily put back down again.