Lay It on My Heart: A Novel

  • By Angela Pneuman
  • Mariner Books
  • 288 pp.
  • Reviewed by Holly Sneeringer
  • July 25, 2014

A teenage girl navigates the uncertainty of adolescence while trying to make sense of her family and her faith.

Lay It on My Heart: A Novel

It might be said that those who cannot come to terms with their families suffer from a hardness of heart. And this hardness seems to be the very thing that 13-year-old Charmaine Peake, in Angela Pneuman’s debut novel, Lay It on My Heart, is fighting against.

In the wake of a family crisis, Charmaine struggles to come to terms with both mental illness and loss of faith. Pneuman’s achievement with this novel is that she has found a way to explore these two issues from an adolescent point of view that is both candid and reticent.

Growing up with a mentally ill parent — even today, with improved treatment and greater awareness — often means living in a world of misguided protection, denial, shame, and even secrecy. It becomes difficult to admit that the illness is there and easier to ignore it or cover it up. Mental illness becomes the white space, the thing not said. But it also becomes part of who you are, how you learn to love.

In this novel, and in Pneuman’s previous collection of short stories, Home Remedies, the author seems to be saying that children and young adults sometimes manage to turn this kind of conflicted love into something very close to grace.

Charmaine, like other adolescent protagonists who are coming of age — that peculiar time of pushing away and pulling closer toward all that is familiar and childish — finds herself at the beginning of her seventh-grade school year having to deal with changes in her family, body, and mind.

Everything is unraveling, everything seems to be beyond her control. Her parents’ marriage and the family’s financial situation are strained when her father, David, a self-proclaimed prophet, returns from a trip to the Holy Land transformed in ways that neither Charmaine nor her mother, Phoebe, are prepared for. They must soon rent out their house and move into a trailer farther out in the countryside of rural Kentucky.

As a result of this displacement, Charmaine and Phoebe are forced to live in close quarters, physically and emotionally. This mother-daughter relationship at the core of the story is handled well by Pneuman, who renders it honestly, objectively, and kindly. From the opening pages to the end, we inhabit this intimate space and can feel two people trying to understand what it means to love: Phoebe, outspoken and pragmatic, demands love from her daughter and ill husband, while Charmaine waits for love to inhabit her. In fact, what makes Charmaine different from the majority of young people around her is the love that most concerns her: the love of God.

Setting is important here. The town of East Winder, Kentucky, where Charmaine was born and raised, is known for its large number of churches, its devout Christian population, and Charmaine’s grandfather, Custer Peake, the cult-like leader of the Great Christian revival of 1973.

There are moral consequences to this small-town upbringing, and Custer Peake casts a long shadow. Especially on his son, David, and in turn, the three women in David’s life. All three — mother, wife, and daughter — want to believe that David Peake’s difficulties are the result of his gift for hearing the voice of God. Pneuman explores the complex ideas of faith and mental health, not through David, prophet turned madman, but through the impact of his situation on his wife and, more importantly, his daughter.

As Charmaine navigates the duality of her lonely and overcrowded life, there are times when she is almost too wise for a 13-year-old, but she is never too good, despite her attempts to live a prayerful life. As she begins to discover that things are not always as they appear, she stops longing for her life to stay the same and opens herself up to the possibility of change — even loss. What begins as disenchantment turned to fear becomes acceptance.

Charmaine starts to realize that, in life, nothing is simple, and fictional devices like traveling back and forth in time, as the character does in her favorite book, A Wrinkle in Time, are not available to us as we leave childhood behind.

“In real life that kind of travel is impossible, unless you’re somewhere near a black hole, maybe, where space and time flatten out, but even that, even navigating time and space still seems easier than helping my real-life father find his way back to himself so he can come home,” she says.

Angela Pneuman is a fine storyteller. Written in prose that is plain and precise, at times moving into poetry without becoming overly poetic, this novel could have been distracting in lesser hands. In hers, however, it has charm and fluidity. Readers should not mistake this accessibility and light-handedness for superficiality, however. There is clearly an artistic sensibility working here.

This book has much to say about the uncertainty and terror that many of us experienced as we moved through adolescence, trying to understand who we are and how we fit into the world, “Believing, over and over, what we have to, as hard as we can.” 

Holly Sneeringer has an MFA from Goucher College and has taught writing at Towson University and the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Her essays and stories have appeared in various publications, including St. Anne’s Review, the Gettysburg Review, and the Los Angeles Review. In 2013, she was awarded the A Room of Her Own Foundation’s “Orlando Award.” She is a fiction editor at the Baltimore Review.

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