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.”