Book Review: Bright Burning Things by Lisa Harding

Being Tommy’s mother is too much for Sonya.

Too much love, too much fear, too much longing for the cool wine she gulps from the bottle each night. Because Sonya is burning the fish fingers, and driving too fast, and swimming too far from the shore, and Tommy’s life is in her hands.

Once there was the thrill of a London stage, a glowing acting career, fast cars, handsome men. But now there are blackouts and bare cupboards, and her estranged father showing up uninvited. There is Mrs O’Malley spying from across the road. There is the risk of losing Tommy – forever.

******

For the past year, I’ve struggled to read anything fictional that is even vaguely distressing – real life has been challenging enough since the beginning of the pandemic and I’ve not wanted to add to my own anxiety by reading about someone else’s difficulties, even if those difficulties are the product of someone else’s imagination.

But when Bloomsbury offered me an advanced copy of Lisa Harding’s Bright Burning Things (published today, March 4th), I decided that perhaps I was ready to add something with a bit more emotional weight to my reading list, and Harding’s second book (following the release of Harvesting in 2017) did not disappoint.

The story follows Sonya, a single mother and former actress living in a Dublin suburb, who is trying to raise her four-year-old son whilst grappling with alcohol addiction.

Before I even turned the first page, I knew that there would be elements of this story that would, in all likelihood, resonate with me; I know a little about addiction – how consuming it can be for those suffering with it; how recovery, when/if it comes, isn’t easy and is rarely linear – and I also know, having a four-year-old son myself, how challenging motherhood is, how it forces you to confront who you are and how you were raised.

Sadly, we learn early on that Sonya’s childhood was a traumatic one and subsequently her ability to parent her son, Tommy, is not only impacted by her addiction but also her unstable relationship with her father and the death of her mother. Sonya explains that she is too needy, even with her son, and it’s clear that a lack of affection and understanding in her own childhood is, in part, to blame for this.

Prior to becoming a mother, Sonya channelled the turmoil of her past and her own heightened emotional sense into her roles as an actress and it served her well, but as a single parent and without the adoration of an audience or anyone, really, to show her any genuine affection apart from Tommy and her dog, Herbie, Sonya finds it difficult to silence the ‘winged creatures’ inside of her and her journey to recovery is a long and, at times, torturous one.   

It was easy to feel sympathetic towards Sonya – she has very little in the way of support and she struggles with her mental health, using alcohol to self-medicate – but her chaotic life and disregard, at times, for the welfare of Tommy made for uncomfortable reading (though this is not a criticism of the book). The parent/child roles are blurred from the start, with Tommy regularly caring for his mother as opposed to the other way around, and there are many incidents, particularly at the beginning of the novel, where it is clear that Tommy is danger.

Yet, despite all this, it is obvious how much Sonya loves her son, as well as Herbie (in fact, it is interesting to read how fanatical Sonya is about the fair treatment of animals when she seems completely unable to consider how unfairly she treats herself), and so it’s hard to feel anything other than sadness for Sonya and a desperation to help her.

Harding’s depiction of addiction and recovery is (in my limited understanding) realistic, and one that successful navigates this difficult topic without judgement. It is a moving study of a life that has slowly fallen apart due to alcohol dependency, and Harding sympathetically reveals the potential consequences of addiction when young children are the ones most affected by it.

There were perhaps parts of the book, things that are hinted at from Sonya’s past, that I felt could have been expanded on (I certainly wouldn’t have been bored if the book was a little longer), but that is really my only criticism. I was desperate to find out if Sonya managed to get to a place where she could look after Tommy and herself without alcohol, and even though I was almost relieved to turn the last page on their tumultuous story, I felt incredibly sad to leave them, and I know I will be thinking about Sonya for a long time to come.

(Please note: I will only review books that I enjoy regardless of whether or not I have received an advanced copy from the publisher.)

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