It is a common dilemma for writers: they care passionately for the world around them, even though commitment to a writerly life often demands solitude.

Three years ago, Irish writer Edna O’Brien could take it no more. As she says, sitting in her London home, “In this world around us now, one cannot be unaware of the carnage and brutality that are being done to other humans, but one feels impotent—one sits in one’s room.” And so she decided to dedicate her 24th book to the subject of wars and their aftermaths.

The book, The Little Red Chairs, which explores a range of humanitarian themes, is out this month from Little, Brown. It also includes an unusual consideration of the treatment and background of menial workers in the big city. Did such concerns need to be given a fictional form? On this O’Brien is unequivocal: “What fiction aims to do is describe the human element, what happens to human beings. I wanted to write a book about the world I live in, about evil and harm, and how it spirals out to relatives and communities.”

The Little Red Chairs starts with a stranger arriving in a quiet and sheltered village in the west of Ireland. The newcomer is deeply charismatic but possessed of a singular past. What follows is sensational but harrowing. (It would spoil the book’s astounding trajectory to reveal much more.) One sequence involving an attack on one of the lead characters is so disturbing and unexpected it is almost unreadable. It was not added or written lightly, according to O’Brien, and took a “long, long time.”

O’Brien describes this newest work as belonging to a third phase in her history as a writer. The first phase began in the 1960s with books about herself and other women. Then, in the second phase, she started to write books on “themes of my country, Ireland.” She describes her writing in the current epoch, which began in recent years, as being “about the world.”

The book itself is presented in three parts. The first is in Ireland, the second in London, and the third in The Hague, in the Netherlands. O’Brien admits she could easily have concluded the book halfway through but was “determined to explore the consequences of evil for those who survive.” She says she thinks of The Little Red Chairs “almost as three novels.” The end of the book, she says, presented itself, and she’s glad there is no false catharsis. Its one conclusion, perhaps, is that everyone needs a home.

O’Brien conducted significant research at the United Nationals International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague, which she attended several years before. She also spent time there with numerous witnesses and refugees. This was a profound experience, O’Brien says. One of her most striking realizations was that some humans have “no guilt or feeling.” “All they want is to get back into that position of power,” she says.

Little Red Chairs took almost three years to write. O’Brien says the process was challenging. She thinks of her work “all the time” when she is writing and is unsure if it’s possible for women to make art and sustain a traditional marriage and family. For her, the creative process is the “holding together of a fetus, as tentative as that.” O’Brien herself was once married (she has two grown sons) to another writer, Ernesto Gebler. Notoriously, they parted after bitter rows over her writing career and success. Gebler even claimed he had written her books.

In recent years, there’s been a homecoming of sorts for O’Brien as a writer. She is now world renowned. Philip Roth has called The Little Red Chairs her masterpiece, and at this point she is most-readily associated with her exceptional body of work, rather than the controversies of her early writing—in particular her debut, Country Girl, which was denounced from the pulpits of Irish churches and burned en masse.

O’Brien’s work has long evoked considerations of womanhood and gender relations. Recent changes to both notions interest her, though she warns there may be “too little mystery, too much awareness” between men and women and mentions Mary Wollstonecraft’s dictum that the genders should live apart. She praises the prescience of Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage and declares it to be the “wisest document of all.” Other developments bewilder O’Brien more. She laments the ubiquity of pornography in the current culture. Her one brief sighting of some, in a Spanish hotel room, left her shaken. It was, she says, “like something from a butcher’s shop.”

And of course, there’s Ireland, which O’Brien calls her locus, as this passage from The Little Red Chairs attests: “All of a sudden the sound of the river, squeezing its way under the bridge and then bursting out as it opened into a wide sweep, making its way upstream, girdling the small islands that it passed. The sound was like water bursting in childbirth, or so a woman who had had many children once told her, and she remembered it.”

At 87, O’Brien remains glamorous and utterly compelling. She continues to seek inspiration all the time. Each day, she says, she reads some Shakespeare from a beautiful edition in her study. “It is the greatest mental intoxication, and so wise in the human heart.”

Writing The Little Red Chairs was an intense undertaking, but O’Brien says she will write more and “will see” about another book.

Sinéad O’Shea is a filmmaker, journalist, and writer.