In 2012, in memory of the Sarajevo siege which began in 1992, “11,541 red chairs were laid out in rows along… 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 for the children killed by snipers and the heavy artillery fired from the surrounding mountains”. So opens Edna O’Brien’s new novel.
An on the run Serbian alleged war criminal sets up as a New Age healer in a village in Ireland, and one local woman in particular is mesmerised by him. The fallout from this for her and others is dealt with humanely in this often shocking but always thoughtful book. I was reminded of some aspects of the story of Radovan Karadžić, currently awaiting judgement following a five year trial for war crimes in the Hague (http://www.icty.org/x/cases/karadzic/cis/en/cis_karadzic_en.pdf).
Impunity in committing war crimes, and attempts to hold individuals to account for them, are such huge issues that the destruction wrought on individual human lives can be lost. O’Brien manages to capture and convey such human stories in this remarkable novel. Exile of all types and refugee status are also explored: it feels like nothing is too challenging a subject for the author to address. She humanises refugees and exiles, which is more important than ever given the current refugee crisis.
Review by Bethan