Reviewed by Emily Hoover
Like thick, humid air on a late-summer afternoon in the Deep South, Angela Pneuman’s debut novel, Lay it on my Heart, is heavy. It exists as a commentary on faith, mental illness, and womanhood that’s appropriately served chilled, like glasses of sweet tea I remember from childhood.
Darkly humorous and painfully realistic, this novel tastes like the classic supernatural fiction of Flannery O’Connor, but it also works for a modern audience’s palate—one that is far removed from evangelical revivals and riverside trailers. Despite being too pretty and having too much description in places, Pneuman’s coming-of-age story is a successful one; as I drew closer to its ending, I didn’t want to leave this microcosm of Pneuman’s creation—I felt as I do when the first cool breeze of autumn caresses my cheeks, signaling the end of summer.
The novel follows Charmaine Peake, a thirteen-year-old girl living in the rustic town of East Winder, Kentucky, as she conquers the most difficult month of her life: September 1989. As an evangelical preacher, Charmaine’s late grandfather led “more than four hundred people to the Lord in one of the world’s largest spontaneous revivals” before she was born. Because of this legacy, Charmaine lives and breathes Christian faith, even when her father, David, leaves for Jerusalem because he hears the voice of God. Before leaving, David tells his daughter and his wife, Phoebe—with whom Charmaine does not get along—that they must not work for a paycheck for the whole year and must, instead, live on faith alone.
A year later, Phoebe, Charmaine, and David’s mother Daze welcome David home from Israel, but he’s changed significantly. He returns looking like a holy man—clad in robes and wearing a long, unkempt beard—and he believes he’s been inhabited by Paul the Apostle; he tells his family to continue living on faith. Phoebe, who straddles the line between obedient wife and modern working woman, is displeased though she does not forcibly object.
As Charmaine begins menstruating, she and Phoebe cut costs by relocating to a small riverside trailer they’ve had for years. Meanwhile, Charmaine learns David—who gives new meaning to the term “absent father”—can no longer hear the voice of God. This serves as a catalyst for Charmaine to knead the dough of her womanhood and her faith while facing tests from the boys and girls who live along the river.
Lay it on my Heart warrants the many comparisons to Flannery O’Connor’s flavorful prose. Reminiscent of O’Connor’s short story “Good Country People,” Charmaine contemplates godlessness in a community of faith; she also employs biting humor, has a way with details, and expresses fascination with the disabled, grotesque body.
However, Pneuman is less successful at point of view than some of her southern Gothic predecessors. She remains faithful to Charmaine’s perspective for most of the book, but she “inhabits” David at one point while still trying to maintain Charmaine’s point of view. Charmaine remarks on the fate of “Lot’s unfortunate wife,” and then, suddenly, we’re seeing David’s point of view in the next paragraph; he “manages to throw the washtub on its side,” preparing for a cleansing bath. This is problematic: it’s not David’s story here. It’s Charmaine’s. Consequently, the passage distracts when it should be a major plot point.
Though much of the description works—such as slow-cooked lines like “you might even be able to see Tate’s Bridge hovering over the distant palisades, emerging rusty from the trees”—some of the later description, particularly that which modifies dialogue, is just added sugar. When Charmaine converses with another character, for instance, she often describes the way the dialogue sounds to the ear. After one semi-minor character, Dr. Osborne, speaks, Charmaine follows up with, “He’s speaking like there’s an important mystery behind what he’s saying, like he enjoys the fact that he knows it and I don’t.” Those lines, and others like it, are cumbersome; tone should reveal itself through the context of the dialogue, not by the overstatement of the protagonist.
The parallels between womanhood and the changing of the seasons are admirable, especially the added significance of the change from summer to fall, but if Pneuman had elongated her timeline to cover a span of a few months rather than just one, the result would have felt less contrived. It’s unlikely that the novel’s many unfortunate events would occur in the space between two menstrual cycles.
But when you trim the fat away, Lay it on my Heart stands as a pleasure to consume. With ingredients like great pacing and clear themes, this page-turner is almost as satisfying (and twice as heavy) as a home-cooked meal.
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