How often do you expect to laugh while reading a work of fiction dealing with death, grieving, and moving on? In When the Heart is Laid Bare, Skylar Hamilton Burris pulls off the seeming impossible: finding wholesome, witty humor while looking for answers to life’s suffering.
From the back cover:
“Coach Calder Johnson’s wife has, according to the hospital social worker, expired. Expired. Like a credit card. Not like a human being. Calder hasn’t had a true friend, other than his wife, in twenty-four years. So if he’s going to heal, he’ll have to learn to let someone inside.
“Unfortunately, Calder’s catalog of potential friends swells with unlikely candidates. There’s Jacoby Reynolds, the blunt Anglican priest who watched his wife die, and Lynn McIntire, the beautiful but strangely efficient single mother next door. Then there’s Justin Robinson, an embittered teen Calder wants to recruit for his high school football team. Enter also Connie Myers, the new Calvert High principal, an attractive yet hard-edged woman who’s determined to shake up the status quo.
“Only when Coach Johnson’s heart is finally laid bare will he learn that you can find friendship—and love—in the most unexpected places.”
The storyline unfolds linearly and takes place over two years. It deals with suffering — death, unrequited love, betrayal — in a real way, but somehow not in a depressing manner. The major theme is: How do we move on in spite of tragedy, in spite of suffering? Or said another way: How do we learn to form friendships and love again in spite of the risks of more pain and loss?
Each chapter is told first person with the Point of View (POV) shifting from character to character. Which POV the chapter contains is written in the chapter headings: “Chapter 1: Jacoby” “Chapter 2: Calder” etc. This technique in other books has been a distraction, but Ms. Burris employs it successfully. It worked with and added to the narrative.
One of my chief enjoyments in this book is how matters of faith are presented and incorporated. Faith in God and forms of worship are presented to the reader primarily as internal musing from the POV of three different characters in the book. Later, there are brief conversations between the characters as well. The conversational tone of the observations and dialog make them a natural part of the storyline.
Through the Anglican priest Jacoby Reynolds’ POV, we get a fairly dismissive account of Calder’s church. “I don’t think there’s much in Calvert Community to tell Calder he is not alone. No doubt his fellow churchgoers are kind. I know for certain they have offered him their help and brought him food. But in his suffering, in the darkness that dances at the edge of his vision, he is alone. Jesus is love and light and puppy dogs and rainbows. We laugh with those who laugh, but we merely feed those who weep, with casseroles and more casseroles.” (p. 84) However, toward the end of the book Jacoby admits, “But if I am honest with myself, however much I love the via media [middle way] that is Anglicanism, I am a kind of homeless Christian who could find both fault and virtue in any lodging.” (p. 323) From Calder Johnson’s POV, we see the new initiate’s perplexity at the unfamiliar ritual and archaic terminology of the Anglican forms of worship, and yet also his impressions of the beauty and usefulness of a traditional liturgy and formal prayers.
There is also one sermon given by Jacoby. The lead up to it in the story lines has prepared the reader for his discussion on “Where is God?” in the midst of life’s suffering. So that rather than being an intrusion into the narrative, it is a natural response to the suffering the characters have endured, or are enduring.
Throughout When the Heart is Laid Bare, Ms. Burris uses a light touch to sketch just enough of the circumstances, inner pondering, and conversations of the characters to convey the narrative to the reader. The characters make their own conclusions with in its pages. And there is plenty of room for readers to think upon the themes discussed.
Skylar Hamilton Burris is also the author of my all time favorite Jane Austen sequels. You can find them on her Amazon author page. She also graced this blog with a post discussing her writing process.