Sunday, July 02, 2006

An Audience of Chairs - Joan Clark [June/06]

This is the last novel I finished in June. It is the second book that I have read out of my Random House books. Unlike the other two authors I went with, Lynn Coady and Douglas Coupland, I have never read Joan Clark before, so I was not sure what I was going to think of her. While she currently lives in St. John's Newfoundland, she originally lived in Nova Scotia, and it is in Nova Scotia that this novel takes place.

From the book flap:

From the author of Latitudes of Melt comes 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.

Although Moranna is known in the community as "Mad Mory", she arranges her life carefully to keep herself on an even keel. She plays complicated concerti on a piano board, bakes bread, and carves wooden replicas of her Scottish ancestors to sell to summer tourists.

When he's not working 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 that one of her long-lost daughters is to be married in Halifax, she is determined to attend. Her other daughter will likely be in attendence 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 portrays her eccentric life with empathy and wit. The Cape Breton farmhouse is brought sharply to life as are the inhabitants of the small village in which she lives. Her struggle with mental illness provides the novel with both sadness and hilarity, even as it moves to its extraordinary end.

I don't know what it is with me and always trying to read books by local authors. Many people that I know from around here don't have any idea who most of the authors are that I read, but I like to support the local artists I suppose. It is always nice to get a chance to experience a new author, as Clark is. She is someone that I should have read before now, because this book was very entertaining and makes me want to read some of her other pieces of work.

Moranna may have a mental illness, but there is something about her that you can not help loving. She is a feminist, even if she doesn't set out to be one, because even though she doesn't seem to grasp the idea of money, she is determined to make a way for herself in this world. She has many ideas and projects that she wishes to experience, she doesn't want to have to live off other people. She is also a nonconformist, as she runs around town with her sled and sock purse, you can't help smiling about how in many places she would stick out like a sore thumb.

I think the thing that got me the most about this book is how her then husband lets his mother take Moranna's kids away from her. Many times during the book Moranna calls her mother a witch, and in many ways, you can see it. I can understand if they didn't think Moranna could handle having children around all the time, but to take them from her entirely is a heartless thing to do. You can quickly see that it is something that even after 30 years she has not gotten over.

The novel takes place both in the present, but also has flashbacks to other periods in Moranna's life. We relive moments of her childhood and adulhood with her, so that we know exactly what happened to cause things to happen. For example, the scene where she screws up enough to lose her children is all revealed to you. I just couldn't help feeling bad for her. When she is sent to a mental hospital, you could feel the betrayal she felt, but you were also given an idea of just how bad her mind can be. But, even with it, she found her own methods to get through things instead of relying on the medicine they tried to get her to take.

I think the title of the book is the saddest thing of all. I wondered about it when I bought it, and it is a metaphor for where she is in her life. Every morning to get herself ready to begin the day she has a mock concert, as she does not have a real piano, for an empty audience. An Audience of Chairs.

A great piece of Nova Scotian and Canadian fiction.


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