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 Clark’s 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 Moranna’s 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, Moranna’s 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 Moranna’s 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. Moranna’s quest is for peace, joy, and connection–the same yearnings that drive us all.”
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Joan Clark is the author of the novels Latitudes of Melt, The Victory of Geraldine Gull and Eiriksdottir, as well as two short story collections and several award-winning novels for young adults. Born and raised in Nova Scotia, she has lived in various places across Canada with her geotechnical engineer husband Jack. While living in Calgary she became a founding member of the Alberta Writers Guild and co-founded the acclaimed literary journal Dandelion. She now lives in St. John’s, Newfoundland.
Clark notes that the idea for An Audience of Chairs came in part from her own familial legacy of depression, with which she struggled at one time and which led a grandmother to suicide. “One of the things I was interested in was exploring the idea of family pride, which was abundant in my family. So much pride, in fact, that many of them refused to admit that their grandmother had committed suicide.” Clark made two false starts at writing this novel, the first time 30 years ago. “When I picked up the novel for the third time four years ago, I was surprised that I was able to indulge my sense of humour, to let go and have fun. Once the humour kicked in, I was off and running.”
Clark wrote her first published novel as a young stay-at-home mother, writing in longhand during her infant son’s naptimes. “I had never written fiction before and was amazed that I had been walking around without knowing that there was a story inside my head. That joy of discovery has kept me writing ever since.”
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. As she plays, the woman imagines heavy velvet curtains drawing apart and lively notes rush onstage, where leaping and skipping, they perform a short, spirited dance. 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 shimmers on sunlit water as 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.
The music shifts and now there is a spill of high notes trickling down a mountain fell. The woman hears the lonely call of a French horn from an alpine meadow and the answering shiver of strings. Lifting her hands from the board, she begins conducting the orchestra, combing and parting the air, keeping time as she leads the musicians toward the finale, which she plays with a burst of energy, thumping her hands on the piano aboard, bringing the moderato to a satisfying end.
Having concluded the morning’s concert, the woman lowers her head and for a few moments rests, hands in her lap. The performance has exhausted her, but not for long, and soon she is on her feet, bowing to an audience of chairs. Over and over she bows to the thunderous applause that always follows a perfect performance. A benevolent smile illuminates her face. You are so kind, she says, attempting to be gracious and humble, but she is far from humble and is merely acknowledging the praise that is rightfully hers. Every audience has its limitations and shortcomings, but today’s has been particularly responsive. They know they have been listening to the gifted playing of Moranna MacKenzie, musician extraordinaire.
Tomorrow she will play the adagio.
Picture a glass globe of swirling snow. Inside the globe, at the end of a winding drive, is a low, wide house with three dormer windows above a veranda wrapped in clear plastic. The house is badly in need of repair, but most of the dereliction cannot be seen from the road, and at first glance it might be mistaken for a genteel country hideaway whose privacy is maintained by a thick stand of trees. Assuming the house has an interesting and possibly distinguished past, winter visitors approaching Baddeck by way of the Bay Road will sometimes pause between the crumbling concrete posts at the entrance to the driveway for a closer look at the old farmhouse, but the locals, well aware of its occupant, continue on without a glance.
Inside the house, Moranna, still basking in the satisfaction of the morning’s performance, goes into the bedroom adjacent to the kitchen and begins dressing in clothes laid out the night before. Until she knocked down the wall – who would have guessed whacking a wall with a sledgehammer could be so much fun? – her bedroom had been used as a dining room, but its proximity to the wood stove makes it more practical for sleeping.
Laying out the next day’s clothes is a strategy carried over from a time when Moranna was chronically depressed, but she still employs it as a way of avoiding an early-morning decision. There is the occasional day when she wakens heavy-headed and lethargic, unwilling to make a decision, and stays in bed as late as mid-afternoon. More often than not, these decisions concern what she will do today and in what order. Will she, for instance, work on a carving of the Brahan Seer or finish a sermon? Will she do her errands this morning or this afternoon? Will she write another letter to the Cape Breton Post castigating the government for its slowness in cleaning up the Sydney tar ponds, or will she put it off to another day? These decisions weigh heavily on her and, like choosing what clothes to wear, are better decided the night before. A creature of the moment, Moranna must constantly remind herself to follow the schedule she has worked out in an effort to keep herself balanced and sane.
As she pulls on a sweater and jeans, not for the first time she wonders if the poet Robert Burns laid his clothes on a chair before retiring for the night, in order to avoid having to decide if he should wear a clean shirt in the morning. His wife, Jean Armour, might have decided for him but, having so many children to look after, what her husband would wear the following day was probably the last thing on her mind. There was a time when Moranna regarded Burns as a confidante and friend, and although she no longer writes him letters, she still feels a strong kinship with him. Not only was Burns melancholic, but like her he was a musical genius, gifted with the ability to hear every note on the musical scale with the precision of a tuning fork.
Once she’s dressed, Moranna puts on her Army and Navy jacket, goes out into the snow and carries in two loads of firewood from beneath the tarp where she and her lover, Bun, stacked it before his return to Newfoundland. She stokes the fire, adds wood, then makes herself porridge and strong tea. While she’s drinking the last of the tea, she gets out the old portable Royal she once used to write a novel about Robert Burns and types the sermon she’s been composing for the new minister of Greenwood United Church, Reverend Andy Scott. Moranna has no patience for badly performed music and, because the choir cannot sing an anthem without going flat, rarely attends church. That hasn’t prevented her from pegging the minister as a thoughtful, unstuffy person, a breath of fresh air who, unlike his predecessor, doesn’t mind being given advice. She has decided she likes him and, because he saves his newspapers for her, intends to give him the sermon free of charge.
According to Lottie MacKay, Moranna’s neighbour and a regular churchgoer, Andy’s vague sermons ramble on far too long, and Moranna figures she can help him by providing a sample of a concise, hard-hitting, effective sermon. When he was alive, Moranna’s father, Ian MacKenzie, rarely missed a Sunday service and often expressed the opinion that sermons should be short and straight to the point. He wasn’t suggesting the United Church return to the dour agenda of the Presbyterians and Methodists, but he thought a good sermon should offer fare the congregation could sink their teeth into while they were eating their Sunday dinner at home.
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