Madness in the Maritimes

Even an unsympathetic protagonist doesn’t mar author’s evocative portrait of Cape Breton

An Audience of Chairs
By Joan Clark
Rating: VVV
Reviewed by Emily Landau

In her latest novel, An Audience of Chairs, Canadian author Joan Clark presents an idyllic, dreamlike portrait of Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. She beautifully juxtaposes the serenity of the Maritimes with the chaos and turbulence of mental illness, but slow pacing and an unsympathetic protagonist decrease the reader’s enjoyment somewhat.

Chairs is the story of Moranna MacKenzie, an aging recluse living alone in Cape Breton, whose free-spirited nature is checked by her emotional instability. She spends her days carving wooden figurines, playing the piano, and mourning the loss of her two daughters, taken from her at a young age as a result of her illness.

The narrative alternates between the past and the present, concurrently tracing Moranna’s life and following her in day-to-day routines as an older woman. As the novel progresses, we learn about Moranna in the present and how she became this way, Clark cleverly providing us with both exposition and two distinct stories.

Unfortunately, while the chapters recapping Moranna’s life are quite captivating, those following her present days are slow and lacklustre. Not much happens in Moranna’s present life until near the end of the book, creating uneven pacing and a sense of confusion as to whether Clark is presenting a story or a character study.

Although Moranna’s illness is never named, it seems to be a form of bipolarity-at times Moranna is vivacious, adventurous, and sharp, but then she becomes lethargic, reclusive, and nasty when she hits a low period. The most drastic consequence of this instability is the loss of Moranna’s daughters, taken away by her husband, and Clark skilfully evokes the pathos and sense of emptiness associated with this trauma.

The most notable flaw in the novel lies in the character of Moranna. Clearly her mental instability is what fuels her quirkiness and individuality. However, Moranna’s eccentricity passes the point of being endearing and enters the realm of self-absorption, obnoxiousness, and insensitivity. Her antics, which go so far as breaking into a museum in Scotland to sleep on poet Robert Burns’ bed, come off as rude and tasteless. Moranna is certainly memorable, but sadly, she’s not very likeable.

The novel’s style is simple yet evocative, portraying Cape Breton as a hushed place of innocence, a calming influence on the wild Moranna. Clark imbues the town with a mythic quality, drawing on its tranquility and isolation from the madness of the world.

An Audience of Chairs is not perfect, but it is a quiet, well-crafted read, nicely exploring the complications of mental instability while painting a lovely portrait of the Canadian Maritimes.

Light through the darkness

The beating heart of humanity is at the core of Giller nominee’s trilogy finale

A Wall of Light
By Edeet Ravel
Rating: VVVv
Reviewed by Joyce Hui

Edeet Ravel’s newest and final installment of her trilogy takes her readers into a world of murders, malpractices, and bombs in war-torn Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. The Giller Prize-nomniated A Wall of Light is a straightforward read despite the heavy narrative that sees the characters’ lives left with holes due to the death of (or the simple vacancy of) loved ones.

Ravel is easily able to transport her reader into the world and life of main character Sonya with the clever concept of telling the story as a day in her life. Through diary entries and old letters from relatives, Sonya’s accidental hearing loss is revealed. Through such hardships, Sonya embodies the human spirit by overcoming her disability and leads a somewhat normal life (or what could be considered ‘normal’ living with the constant fear of suicide bombers).

Amidst this world that Ravel draws upon, she is able to instill fear, disgust-and, yes, even hope-into mankind. It is through her characters, like Sonya, that she makes the reader understand the potential that people have, but at the same time realize how fragile we all are. Sonya embodies the both the weaknesses and strengths that we all possess, but might have forgotten about in this often pessimistic world.

Despite the external factors that are associated with living in a war zone, Ravel’s book is based on family and love. By placing the basic human emotion of needing to love and to be loved at the very heart of her characters, Ravel is able to make her tale universal to readers from any background. Although this is may be the final book in her trilogy, she leaves you craving and yearning for more.

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