Joyce Carol Oates in The New York Times:
Edna O’Brien’s boldly imagined and harrowing new novel, “The Little Red Chairs” — her 23rd work of fiction since “The Country Girls” (1960) — is both an exploration of those themes of Irish provincial life from the perspective of girls and women for which she has become acclaimed and a radical departure, a work of alternate history in which the devastation of a war-torn Central European country intrudes upon the “primal innocence, lost to most places in the world,” of rural Ireland. Here, in addition to O’Brien’s celebrated gifts of lyricism and mimetic precision, is a new, unsettling fabulist vision that suggests Kafka more than Joyce, as her portrait of the psychopath “warrior poet” Vladimir Dragan suggests Nabokov in his darker, less playful mode. Should we not recognize immediately the sinister “Dr. Vladimir Dragan of Montenegro,” the author has placed this poignant passage as an epigraph: “On the 6th of April 2012, to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the start of the siege of Sarajevo by Bosnian Serb forces, 11,541 red chairs were laid out in rows along the 800 meters 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.”
Like a figure in a malevolent Irish fairy tale, a mysterious stranger appears one day seemingly out of nowhere on a bank of a tumultuous river in western Ireland, in a “freezing backwater that passes for a town and is called Cloonoila.” The stranger is himself “mesmerized” by the “manic glee” of the deafening water. Soon, the curious, credulous inhabitants of Cloonoila fall one by one under the spell of Dragan, “Vuk,” or “Dr. Vlad,” a professed poet, exile, visionary, “healer and sex therapist.” To one, he resembles a “holy man with a white beard and white hair, in a long black coat”; so priestly, one might “genuflect.” To another, he is a figure of hope: “Maybe he’ll bring a bit of romance into our lives.” Schoolchildren think he looks “a bit funny in a long black smock, with his white beard,” but consider him harmless. The village schoolteacher is suspicious, suggesting that the stranger may be a kind of Rasputin, another notorious “visionary and a healer,” but no one chooses to listen.