Somewhere around page 90 it becomes clear that the charismatic healer who has turned up in a small Irish village, is of a definite violent disposition and that he might not be who he claims to be. The man who up to then is mostly known for his charm and his new age healing methods (treating especially the local women) turns out to be a fugitive, a war criminal who is sought for his atrocities during the Serbian-Bosnian war. On the basis of O’Brien’s description (a poet with a beautiful shock of hair) one might conclude that she has based ‘her’ Vlad on Radovan Karadžić, one of the men responsible for thousands of casualties of war in Srebenica and Sarajewo.
O’Brien did not set her novel in Serbia or Bosnia, (during the novel not a single person is located there), but in a lovely, almost idyllic Irish village. That village welcomes the stranger, Vlad, and offers him the chance to start his practice. He soon becomes an appreciated neighbour. At first the novel does not have a specific main character. at about 1/3rd of The Little Red Chairs Fidelma, a married childless woman, claims this role. She hopes Vlad is willing to get her with child. After some ceremonial doubts the vain man accepts and fathers a child. Some months into the pregnancy Vlad is arrested and taken away to be judged in The Hague. The most gruesome part of the novel takes place on the day he is captured. Fidelma is raped in the most atrocious manner by three men seeking revenge on Vlad.
Fidelma and the novel move to London. At first she wanders around aimlessly, next she is welcomed into the world of fugitives and illegal immigrants. The contrast with her previous comfortable life stings in more than one way. The affluent village abhors her pregnancy and cannot deal with Fidelma’s rape, the villagers leave her to her own devices. The poor underpaid fugitives and illegals who fear for their jobs and are constantly in fear of deportation lovingly help her. Thank God some of them are nasty individuals, The Little Red Chairs would have become very yukkie otherwise.
By situating her novel in Ireland O’Brien has expertly emphasized her message: anyone can be the victim of war and a war criminal. Precisely because Fidelma is not one of the actual victims of the conflict in Bosnia and Serbia O’Brien pinpoints the atrocities and the horror of any war. The contrast between the lyrical descriptions of Ireland and the cruelties of Sarajewo and Srebenica have the reader acknowledge the war crimes. As far as I am concerned the least convincing parts of the novel were those paragraphs in which ‘real’ victims describe what has happened to them, turning The Little Red Chairs into a journalistic document. The strength of this novel lies in making us realize that war can enter any lovely village, wherever.