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An Audience of Chairsby Joan Clark
Synopses & Reviews
Like beauty, madness altered perception, but instead of offering illusion, it offered delusion. Moranna leaned the tricks madness played on perception the hard way as experience showed her how persuasively madness distorted reality. Experience also showed her that if she hung on long enough, the panic would subside and the delusions would pass. There were many dawns on the ferry when the sight of the ugly smoke stacks reassured her. They were proof that once again she had won the showdown with the voice and had delivered herself to the dawn, wholly alive. (p. 286)
Joan Clarks An Audience of Chairs opens with Moranna MacKenzie living alone in her ancestral Cape Breton farmhouse, waging a war with the symptoms of bipolar disorder and grieving the loss of her two daughters, taken from her over thirty years previously. There are few people remaining in her life, as Moranna cannot help but tax the patience of nearly everyone she encounters. Her long-suffering brother Murdoch has her best interests at heart, though he is fatigued by her enormous needs and pressured by his ambitious wife to invest less time in her. Pastor Andy politely sloughs off the peculiarly intelligent yet unpalatable sermons Moranna pens for him. Her neighbour Lottie knows what it is to be an eccentric and can be counted on to come through in a pinch. The local RCMP constabulary smooths over her legal scrapes. And her lover Bun, who lives with her when not working on the ferries between Cape Breton and Newfoundland, knows how to give her a wide berth on her “foul weather” days. Thanks to the assistance of these sometimes reluctant guardian angels, as well as to the carefully planned inheritance left by her father (not to mention her own sheer ingenuity), Moranna has managed to get by all these years despite small-town gossips and tormenting youths.
Through a series of flashbacks, we learn more about the devastating effects of Morannas mental illness on her life and that of her family. But An Audience of Chairs also gives us a glimpse into the mind of a true iconoclast and wild spirit, who has managed despite overwhelming odds to keep hope alive.
In her early years, Morannas accomplishments and beauty, along with the protection of a father who saw glimmers of his suicidal wife in his beloved daughter, allow her to struggle through childhood and adolescence in Sydney Mines relatively unscathed. She is a gifted pianist, a magazine covergirl, and a promising actress when she makes a brilliant marriage to an up-and-coming young journalist, Duncan. But she soon finds herself unmoored by motherhood, and the oddities that the people in her life have always chosen to overlook become more difficult to disguise with drama and wit when maternal expectations are placed upon her. Her staged life comes crashing down around her ears when she is left alone with her daughters and in a manic artistic phase risks their lives terribly. Her family can no longer explain away her eccentricities, her husband forsakes her, and she is institutionalized, her children taken from her forever.
No longer playing the roles of perfect daughter, wife and mother, the devastated Moranna falteringly gropes for purpose in her life. She returns to the inherited Baddeck farmhouse and, inspired by a vision she has of her great-aunt Hettie, whose stories of their Scottish ancestors once filled the youthful Morannas imagination with stories of valour, earns a small income as a woodcarver. She carves for tourist sales the courageous and larger-than-life people of her clan, to whose histories she clings in order to reinforce her belief in her pedigree as a lionheart, so much more comforting than the spectre of madness lurking in her maternal lineage.
She enthralls the audiences in her mind - in reality an audience of chairs - with daily virtuoso performances on the piano board, a silent keyboard upon which she does battle with her demons through the music of Chopin and Rachmaninov.
Through these and other ingenious - and often hilarious - strategies, Moranna has over the years constructed a life of delicate balance, all of which is jeopardized one day by a glimpse of television. Visiting town with Bun, she is astonished to see her now-grown daughter Bonnie being interviewed for a local station about a climatalogical lecture she is to give, to be soon followed by her wedding in Halifax. Moranna knows she must make what will certainly be a surprise appearance at the wedding. But this means a high-stakes gamble with everything she has-her pride, her precarious mental health, her hope for a measure of grace in the world.
Of An Audience of Chairs, Quill and Quire said: “Elegantly written and deeply grounded in place, this moving, compassionate novel is far more than a story of mental illness. Morannas quest is for peace, joy, and connection-the same yearnings that drive us all.”
From the Hardcover edition.
From the author of the internationally acclaimed Latitudes of Melt comes the story of Moranna MacKenzie, a woman who lives alone in a Cape Breton farmhouse, fighting the symptoms of mental illness and still grieving the loss of her two daughters, who were taken from her over thirty years previously.
Moranna is known in the community as “Mad Mory”; she plays complicated concerti on a piano board, sings — she has perfect pitch — bakes bread and carves wooden replicas of her Scottish ancestors to sell to tourists. She doesn’t often go to church, but takes it upon herself to write the odd, opinionated sermon for the church minister. Because she refuses to have a phone, her brother Murdoch must periodically drive out of his way to assist her when she gets into scrapes with the law, usually for erratic or threatening behaviour.
When he’s not working on the ferries between Cape Breton and Newfoundland, Moranna’s lover, Bun, lives with her. These two aging misfits ask only to be left alone to live as they choose. But when Moranna learns that one of her long-lost daughters is to be married in Halifax, she is determined to be there. Her other daughter will likely be in attendance as well. Will either of them recognize her? Will they be happy to see her? And will Moranna stay sane enough not to cause a scene?
Moranna is simply unforgettable, and Joan Clark imbues her eccentric life with both wit and romance. Her Cape Breton farmhouse is brought sharply to life as are the inhabitants of the small village in which she lives. Moranna’s struggle with mental illness provides the novel with both sadness and hilarity, even as it moves to its extraordinary end.
Picture a woman playing a piano board at the kitchen table on a late December morning. Her hands, warmed by knuckle gloves, move across the wooden keys as she leans into the music. Pedalling a foot against the floor, her strong, supple fingers pound the opening chords of a Rachmaninov concerto. The woman imagines heavy velvet curtains drawing apart and lively notes rush on stage, leaping and skipping in a short, spirited dance that ends in a flutter of sound. The dancers depart and swaying from side to side, the woman plays slower notes and hums along, her voice mellifluous and soothing as she imagines herself beside a stream sliding through waving grass. Outside the window, the winter landscape is frozen and drab, but inside the farmhouse it is summer and music sparkles on sunlit water as the notes flow from the woman’s fingertips, moving outward in ever expanding circles. Except for the fire crackling inside the wood stove and the woman’s hum, no sound can be heard in the kitchen, for the painted keys of the piano board are as mute as the table beneath.
—from An Audience of Chairs
From the Hardcover edition.
About the Author
Joan Clark is the author of the novels Latitudes of Melt, The Victory of Geraldine Gull and Eiriksdottir, as well as 2 short story collections and several award-winning novels for young adults. She was born and raised in Liverpool and Sydney Mines, Nova Scotia, and has lived for many years now in St. John’s, Newfoundland.
From the Hardcover edition.
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