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audience

An Audience of Chairs by Joan Clark. Knopf Canada, 2005.

Once an aspiring concert pianist, Moranna MacKenzie now plays for an audience of chairs on her kitchen table board. Her life has been derailed by mental illness. Impetuous and proud, her self-absorbed behaviour leads her from one disaster to another as she bounces from mania to depression. Her story is told in sequences that shift from the present, into a past that led to her current situation. Her major misfortune, losing touch with her children after they are removed from her care, drives the plot.

Although it took me a while to warm up to Moranna, I found myself drawn into her tale and wincing with each new painful disaster her actions set in motion. She is sympathetically and lovingly portrayed by Clark, and her boyfriend Bun is a revelation, an easy-going, supportive figure who helps to shore up her life. Clark is less sympathetic of family members, especially her husband who deserts her and makes no effort to reunite her with her daughters.

No label is ever placed on Moranna’s illness, but it appears to be bipolar disorder, replete with hearing voices and delusional paranoid episodes in which she thinks the FBI is tracking her. It bothered me that while Moranna is aware of her condition, and is an intelligent, educated woman who cares deeply for her lost daughters, she doesn’t ever seek out medical assistance. After a negative experience with hospitalization following the removal of her children as a young woman, she struggles on alone. However, the story ends in 2001. Drug therapy that might have helped her has been available for some years, and treatment of bipolar disorder has probably changed over the 33 years that elapse from the time Moranna is first hospitalized to the end of the story. I think the desire to see my children would have motivated me to try seeking help again.

This book has one of the sweetest, most satisfying endings I’ve come across in a while. A good ending can be a challenge, and some otherwise excellent books have very disappointing endings. This is not one of them, as Clark does a fine job of wrapping up this interesting account of mental illness.

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