The Little Red Chairs – Edna O’Brian

While browsing in Waterstones recently I overhead one of the staff recommending this to someone else which was good enough for me! Set in a small village in rural Ireland it tells the story of the arrival of a mysterious man who sets himself up as a faith healer, offering massages, herbal remedies and a hint of spiritualism. This strange arrival unsettles the village and we hear of it from a few perspectives however in the main the story follows Fidelma. Fidelma seems to be trapped in a marriage and lifestyle that restrains her, there is an evident restlessness about her as well as a deep longing for a child. She begins to get closer to the new Dr and the rest of the book deals with the,  at times horrific, consequences. The book opens explaining that on the 20th anniversary of the start of the siege of Sarajevo 11,541 red chairs were laid out in it’s high street to represent the lives lost during the siege. At first the connection to this is not obvious however as the book develops it becomes clear. From this point on the author skillfully creates an egocentric psychopath and allows us as readers to reflect on the nature and power of such evil. Taking us to the war tribunal in the Hague gives us the opportunity to consider the way humanity attempts to deal with such horrors.  There is a fluidity about this book that is at times a bit unnerving, it’s not always clear who is narrating and conversations seem to appear out of nowhere and as if they might already be halfway through. However it is a really good read, it was really interesting, although also devastatingly awful, reading about the siege of Sarajevo, something I knew very little about. Fidelma as a character develops really well. In the second part of the book,  as she lives among the displaced of London,  the stories we hear are moving and relevant, again giving us pause to reflect, this time on the lives of people who have so many different experiences but are all essentially looking  for the same thing –  home. This end of this book is moving and powerful, it’s a book that gets under the skin and I am very glad I overheard the recommendation or I may not have picked it up.

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The Summer before the War – Helen Simonson

I loved this book, I could have read more and more of it and it is already a hefty 496 pages long! Set in a small village in East Sussex during the summer of 1914 it follows the story of Beatrice, the new, controversially, female Latin teacher. With a whole host of characters making up the cast the author evocatively paints a picture of the quintessential English village. I have no idea how accurate it is not having lived during this period or indeed in an English village but it feels sincere and very real. I love the way she builds up the main characters so that they almost come off the page. The story essentially follows the lives of the main characters through the summer of 1914 and into the first winter of the war. From the drama of the minutiae of village life,  which she does brilliantly describing scenes so real you feel you could be there, to the vivid and stark description of trench life. She writes with humor and affection, bringing to life the intricate relationships between women in this hierarchical society. There are many stories set around the main one of Beatrice, as there are so many characters, but her story is one of how to exist as an independent educated woman in a patriarchal world.  There is so much to be explored in this book, the author addresses many big issues of the time such as homosexuality, refugees and the place of women, to name a few, but she has skillfully written it all into what is essentially a really good read, drawing you in and involving you in the lives of people you have grown fond of. It reminded me a bit of Downton Abbey which I also loved so if you enjoyed that I think you would enjoy this too!

The Boy at the Top of the Mountain – John Boyne

This book, like The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, is designed for younger readers but perfectly appropriate for adults too. Following the story of Pierrot,  who after the death of his mother is sent to live with his aunt at the top of a mountain, it’s a stark reminder of the many faces of the casualties of war. Pierrot had lived in France until the death of his mother as his German father was already dead. As a child he is oblivious to the changing political undercurrents with the rise of the nazi party. When he arrives at the house his aunt works in he has no idea who Hitler is or that he is now living in his home. He observes the different dynamics between the staff but does not understand what they mean. Pierrot becomes caught up in this new world and is soon keen to impress this powerful man which has tragic consequences. This is a very well written and poignant story, as you see the story unfold you can’t help but feel sorry for Pierrot and desperately want the story to change direction. His desire to fit in and impress makes sense and at no time did I want to blame him for how the story ended but just felt incredibly sad for him as a victim of his time and place, like so many others. John Boyne has a real gift for getting to the humanity of this appalling time in our history in a way that is accessible to people of all ages. I think we have a responsibility to encourage young people to read books like this and help them attempt to understand what happened so that we will never forget.