Baillie Gifford Main Theatre
Edinburgh Book Festival
I felt genuinely thrilled and honoured to be sitting right up and close to living legend Edna O’Brien. Her cousin, also an O’Brien, happened to be sitting next to me, and she quickly offered up the story of when her first book came out in 1960, the infamous and groundbreaking ‘Country Girls’, the local priest called all the parishioners in to the Church one Sundaywith their copies of the book, created a large pile and set fire to the lot. It certainly didn’t stop her fervour to write. She hardly needed an introduction by chair Sara Davies, with her 17 novels, 9 books of short stories, plays, biographies and personal memoir.
At the risk of sounding superficial, at 85 she can always be described as elegant, poised and stately. From the way she scanned the audience, Edna almost looked like she’d rather have been at home or working on a new book, away from this expectant crowd, but she certainly didn’t disappoint. Razor-sharp, passionate and charming, her talk about her first book in a decade, ‘Little Red Chairs’, sped by. She began the hour by reading an excerpt, which immediately evoked the very particular atmosphere of a small town in Ireland. Clues in the passage create a sense of unease around the arrival of Dr. Vlad Dragan, healer and sex therapist. A beguiling man, who at first reels the townsfolk in with his charms, but then shows his true colours as a dangerous psychopath. He wreaks havoc on the town with devastating results, particularly for smitten Fidelma, the draper’s wife.
As it hinted strongly, the unsettling character is indeed based on Radovan Karadzic, the infamous Bosnian Serb war criminal. The title of the book refers to the more than ten thousand red chairs placed along the main street in Sarajevo, that represented the civilian victims of the war twenty years earlier, including little ones for the children. The idea for writing the book was sparked by a suggestion that stories often begin with the arrival of a mysterious stranger. For O’Brien, three necessary ingredients must be part of a recipe for a book; theme, story and the ‘seed’, that must all cook up together. She had to do a great deal of research to write this book, insisting that the only way to write about political problems was to know them from the inside. Along with the interest and the research, in order to really ring true, there must be a corresponding echo within oneself to explore the subject. She was fascinated by the common occurrence of charismatic, seductive people using manipulation for good and for bad; that they are often sides of the same coin, and I wondered how many she had come across in her personal life. Seeing the photos of the chairs, particularly the ones for the children, made her cry, and gave her the impetus to make sure her research was indeed thorough, including visiting The Hague. What bothered her most while gathering material was the total imperviousness of the war criminals to the magnitude of the crimes they had committed; responsibility and remorse replaced by repulsive swagger and bravura. She was shown the wing where Karadzic drank wine with his cohorts, and this sickened her.
She tried hard in the writing of the book to remain both poetic but also true to the difficult material, in the spirit of Conrad, Hemmingway and the Kabuki Theatre when describing true horror. Her main character, Fidelma, who has the misfortune to be seduced by Dr.Vlad, ends up working at an advice centre for migrants and refugees, and she herself spent time at similar meetings, hearing terrible accounts, people checking out from the horror and waiting for the letters from the Home Office that determine their fate. What struck her was the raw accounts of horrors experienced; there being no time for anything but honesty after going through such terrible trauma.
After becoming the master of her craft after writing for so many decades, she had a great deal of wisdom to dispense to our eager minds. Every book you write changes you. The particular flavour that authors bring to literature depends on the accidents of geography and temperament, and knowing the landscape intimately means that your unconscious can summon details without thought. She despises clichéd, happy endings where all the loose ends are neatly tied up. Careful not to throw out a spoiler, she said the reasons for the story were encapsulated in the last two lines of the book; ‘the longing for home’, that we as humans are all born with.
For her the power of good writing is the precision that leads to intimate flawless communication; the truth of the words themselves and the effect the have on the reader. Don’t underestimate the power of your own experience mixed with your own imagination, she encourages us. Books, including the highly influential ‘Introducing James Joyce’ by T.S. Eliot, and poetry by Dickinson and Plath gave her inner faith and confidence to write. She describes her less than encouraging start to a literary career; a childhood in a house with only prayer books, Mrs. Beeton’s cookbook and bloodsport manuals to digest, and a family who equated her writing with sin. I’m sure we all gave silent thanks that she had the strength to break away from a stifling existence and continue to write, as she wryly repeated her publicists’ phrase, into her ‘ninth decade’.
Reviewed by Lisa Williams