I was extremely curious to read this novel. It's decades since I read anything by Edna O'Brien, who is now in her eighties, and I remembered little about her writing except that I'd enjoyed her early novels a great deal. This one is the first she's published for ten years, and I came to it completely cold, having read no reviews and having little idea of what it was about. I did know that O'Brien's novels generally focused on the lives of women - 'women who lose themselves in love', as an early Paris Review interview puts it. And yes, certainly we encounter one of these in the novel - beautiful Fidelma, trapped in an unsatisfactory marriage to a man twenty years older, disappointed by the demise of her once successful boutique, and longing more than anything to have a child. Fidelma lives in a small rural village in Ireland, populated by much the same people we'd have encountered in O'Brien's earlier novels, though life here has moved on and there are now grand country house hotels and fake Irish cottages to entertain the tourists. But the villagers themselves retain something of their traditional simplicity, and thus are quite unable to know what to make of the charismatic foreigner who arrives with the intention of setting himself up as a holistic healer and sex therapist. That last bit very soon bites the dust, but the healing takes off to some extent, and even a nun (admittedly a feisty and untraditional one) goes to him for a startling treatment involving hot stones applied to her naked back. Dr Vlad manages to win the confidence of most of the villagers - memorably rescuing a dog that has got trapped in a rabbit hole - but most of all he attracts lonely Fidelma, who hopes he can give her the child she has always desired.
All this is interesting and appealing, and thus far you could say there are no real surprises. But that doesn't last long. Very soon we discover that Dr Vlad is not what he pretends to be. He is, in fact, a wanted war criminal, responsible for untold numbers of appalling atrocities in his native Bosnia. He is discovered and arrested, and now the novel swerves off into a passage of such horrific brutality and violence that I was quite unable to read it. Suffice it to say that Fidelma is radically damaged both physically and psychologically, and as soon as she is able, takes herself off to London for a life of initial homelessness followed by desperately dead-end jobs in which she encounters many dispossessed and lonely people, many of them migrants escaping from even more desperate lives and conditions. Indeed to a large extent it is the life stories of these people - a louder echo of the ones we heard from the staff of that posh Irish hotel - that come to dominate the second half of the novel, though we never lose sight of Fidelma as she struggles and suffers, even visiting the war crimes tribunal in Holland and having a sad and unsatisfactory meeting with the imprisoned Vlad.
So this is a real rollercoaster of a novel. We have the softness, beauty and innocence of the Irish countryside, and of course of Fidelma herself, contrasted with the brutal realities of what the world outside holds. In fact it's clear that the novel is emblematic of life itself in the present day - so much love and beauty still exists to celebrate and enjoy, but every day we are assailed by evidence of more cruelty, more atrocities, more people who show a complete disregard for truth, honesty, openness, more terrible crimes committed in the name of a fanatical set of beliefs about what is right. The book is one of great humanity, showing enormous sympathy for the stateless and dispossessed. It's impossible not to love and sympathise with Fidelma, even when it becomes clear that despite everything she would like to believe that something genuine and of real value existed between herself and Vlad - and this despite her full knowledge of his true nature and of the depth and horror of the crimes he has committed. Even Vlad himself, deceitful and wholly in denial, remains a complex figure, his undeniable charisma and ability to do real good seemingly reminiscent of those of Rasputin in imperial Russia.
I can't exactly say that I enjoyed this novel - it was a tough read in many places and indeed as I said there were bits I had to skip. But it's a book I won't forget in a hurry and I'm very glad to have had a chance to read it.