I was so excited to read this novel. It begins with an announcement of an exhibit of 11, 541 red chairs on the Sarajevo high street to commemorate the start of the siege of Sarajevo by Bosnian Serb forces. Each chair represented a dead Sarajevan during the last 1425 days of the siege. Six hundred and forty-three chairs represented children.
The novel then jumps into a quote from Gilgamesh. A bearded man comes to the small Irish town of Cloonoila, which has been in decline since the creation of a highway that bypassed its shopping district. Fidelma McBride and her husband rent their closed boutique to a bearded foreigner who comes to town dispensing philosophy and alternative medicine. His massages and aromatherapy appeal particularly to the women of the village, especially Fidelma, whose miscarriages and longing for a child have become the focus of her unhappiness. Their affair brings her brief happiness, which is shattered when the stranger, who has made himself part of the fabric of village life, is arrested and revealed to be The Butcher of Bosnia. From that moment, Fidelma’s dream becomes hell. After a brutal attack, she flees to England, where she works as a maid, attends support groups for the survivors of war crimes against women, and finally gets the courage to face herself, her future, and the cause of her unhappiness.
I was very unhappy when I closed the cover of this novel. Other than a few brief pages at the beginning, the novel was a slog through misery and it ended unhappily. Then I began investigating the actual story of the Butcher of Bosnia. While he did not hide in Ireland, he did spend years in hiding, he did practice alternative medicine and philosophy, and seems to have been popular with women. He was a monster, who brought peace and love to people he encountered after engineering the death of all those represented by the red chairs. Like Fidelma, I found myself adrift, uncertain what to think about how someone so evil could appear so enticing and how someone so hateful could bring anything like love. The idea that we can’t identify evil is deeply troubling, as is the thought that we might be seduced by it.