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An Audience of Chairs by Joan Clark
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An Audience of Chairs

by Joan Clark

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Moranna MacKenzie is a brilliant, creative woman who also suffers from a mental illness that is probably manic depression (now called bipolar disorder). She lives in an old farmhouse in Baddeck, Nova Scotia where she carves wooden figures to sell to the tourists who take the Cabot Trail right in front of her house. Some mornings it would be easier to stay in bed but she has developed a system that gets her up. One of those things is to play the piano board for an audience of chairs. She doesn't want to take medication because she fears losing her creative impulses and so she has developed coping mechanisms. They don't always work and lots of people in the small town of Baddeck call her crazy. Fortunately, Moranna has a few guardian angels who are prepared to accept her as she is and provide support. One of those is her lover, Bun, who lives with her when the ferries between Cape Breton and Newfoundland are not running. Another is her brother who manages her finances and runs interference when Moranna goes too far.

Over 30 years ago, during a manic episode, Moranna left her two daughters and their cousin on an island in Bras d'Or. Her husband, a journalist, was in Moscow at the time and Moranna was left to look after the girls with only the part-time assistance of a neighbour girl. Moranna knew what she did was wrong and took to her bed while her father and stepmother looked after the children. A local doctor suggested treatment in the Nova Scotia asylum so Moranna was packed off there while her in-laws took the children. That was the last time Moranna saw the girls and she has thought of them ever since.

Then, by chance, she sees an interview with her daughter, now a renowned scientist. She learns the daughter will be in Halifax to get married and she is determined to contact her. It could go so wrong but Moranna knows she has to make the effort.

I found Moranna a complex and engaging character. She would probably be hard to handle in real life but if one made the effort, as Bun and her neighbour, Lottie, and others did, she would be interesting to have around. I found it fascinating to get this glimpse into the mind of someone with manic depression. Joan Clark has said she learned most of what she knows about the illness by observation but she has also said she is "always vulnerable to the emotional weather of the characters in my novels". So I think she, to some extent, became a person with those highs and lows.

This appears to be the last book Joan Clark has written. She is now 79 years old so maybe she has retired. Or maybe she is working on something and the literary world has something to look forward to. I hope that is the case. ( )
  gypsysmom | Oct 10, 2013 |
Moranna is a manic depressive living in Nova Scotia. Her two young daughters bonnie and Brianna were taken away from her in their early childhood because Moranna’s mind kept escaping. The book tells of how she fell ill and then struggled over many years to oversome that, and eventually re-runite with her long lost duaghters as they approach middle-age.
Clark’s style is deceptively simple. She simultaneously brings us into Moranna’s mind, while we watch her from outside and see the devastating effects. ( )
  BCbookjunky | Mar 31, 2013 |
Moranna is a manic depressive living in Nova Scotia. Her two young daughters bonnie and Brianna were taken away from her in their early childhood because Moranna’s mind kept escaping. The book tells of how she fell ill and then struggled over many years to oversome that, and eventually re-runite with her long lost duaghters as they approach middle-age.Clark’s style is deceptively simple. She simultaneously brings us into Moranna’s mind, while we watch her from outside and see the devastating effects. ( )
  TheBookJunky | Sep 24, 2011 |
I had selected An Audience of Chairs from the bargain section, as filler to reach the free shipping mark, during one of my many online book-buying sprees last year, and accordingly did not expect much from it. It sat patiently waiting and collecting dust on my bookshelf, in hopes that I would one day give it the attention that it so rightfully deserved. In an effort to finally make a dent in the copious amount of unread books that are taking up the diminishing space on my oversized shelves, I finally picked up this Canadian piece of fiction, and am I ever glad I did.

And so began my love affair with Moranna MacKenzie, the proud, self-absorbed, impetuous and free-spirited heroin of Joan Clark’s imagination. I am left with an impression of melancholy and bewilderment, now that her story has been told and she is no longer a part of my existence, as I have spent the last two days completely enthralled in hers. On more than a few occasions I found myself breathless, anxiously awaiting her next unbridled move that would only further her unfortunate descent into madness.

Although those closest to Moranna were quick to blame her mental illness for all that befell her, it was quickly apparent to me that it was also those accusers that needed to shoulder some of the blame. Her father failed her by keeping her mother’s illness a secret, as she might have found help for herself before having children, thus avoiding many of the hardships she was faced with. Secondly, the real tragedy of Moranna’s story is not her abandonment of her children, but her husbands abandonment of her, as she was sick and in need of help, while he was of sound mind and had vowed to be there for her in sickness and in health. Alas, it may be that her forced independence is what led her to a place of contentment, as her anger and will helped her to eventually weather the storm.

That being said, one of the most telling parts of the story, for me, was Moranna’s aversion to the story of the crucifixion of Christ, and his dying whilst taking responsibility for our sins. This cherished Easter story proved too much for her to bear, as she, in true form with her illness, was never able to take responsibility for any of the adversity or mistakes arising from her instability.

In the end, it is the unyielding empathy that Joan Clark affords this tragic character, and that I, as the audience filling one of those chairs, feels for her, that makes this story such an amazing and affecting journey into the complex, isolating and misunderstood abyss that is Manic-Depression.

www.booksnakereviews.blogspot.com
  PamelaReads | Aug 5, 2011 |
I had selected An Audience of Chairs from the bargain section, as filler to reach the free shipping mark, during one of my many online book-buying sprees last year, and accordingly did not expect much from it. It sat patiently waiting and collecting dust on my bookshelf, in hopes that I would one day give it the attention that it so rightfully deserved. In an effort to finally make a dent in the copious amount of unread books that are taking up the diminishing space on my oversized shelves, I finally picked up this Canadian piece of fiction, and am I ever glad I did.

And so began my love affair with Moranna MacKenzie, the proud, self-absorbed, impetuous and free-spirited heroin of Joan Clark’s imagination. I am left with an impression of melancholy and bewilderment, now that her story has been told and she is no longer a part of my existence, as I have spent the last two days completely enthralled in hers. On more than a few occasions I found myself breathless, anxiously awaiting her next unbridled move that would only further her unfortunate descent into madness.

Although those closest to Moranna were quick to blame her mental illness for all that befell her, it was quickly apparent to me that it was also those accusers that needed to shoulder some of the blame. Her father failed her by keeping her mother’s illness a secret, as she might have found help for herself before having children, thus avoiding many of the hardships she was faced with. Secondly, the real tragedy of Moranna’s story is not her abandonment of her children, but her husbands abandonment of her, as she was sick and in need of help, while he was of sound mind and had vowed to be there for her in sickness and in health. Alas, it may be that her forced independence is what led her to a place of contentment, as her anger and will helped her to eventually weather the storm.

That being said, one of the most telling parts of the story, for me, was Moranna’s aversion to the story of the crucifixion of Christ, and his dying whilst taking responsibility for our sins. This cherished Easter story proved too much for her to bear, as she, in true form with her illness, was never able to take responsibility for any of the adversity or mistakes arising from her instability.

In the end, it is the unyielding empathy that Joan Clark affords this tragic character, and that I, as the audience filling one of those chairs, feels for her, that makes this story such an amazing and affecting journey into the complex, isolating and misunderstood abyss that is Manic-Depression.

Check out more of my reviews at BookSnakeReviews ( )
  PeachyTO | Apr 8, 2010 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0676976565, Paperback)

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.”


From the Hardcover edition.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:23:11 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

The story of Moranna MacKenzie, a woman who lives alone in a Cape Breton farmhouse, fighting the ups and downs of a mental illness and still grieving the loss of her two daughters who were taken from her over thirty years previously. When Moranna learns that one of her long-lost daughters is to be married in Halifax, she is determined to attend.… (more)

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