Bright Burning Things is a quietly beautiful novel that delicately handles the pressures of addiction illness. Sonya, a complex and kind character, pursues a path of recovery when her role as a mother to Tommy is questioned. What follows is an intense and considered portrayal of family life, highlighting strained relationships and darkened pasts. We see clearly how addiction has affected Sonya’s life, and the turmoil she experiences when faced with temptation. Harding’s use of language helps present these two differing egos, pulling us into the story so we truly understand Sonya’s struggle, as well as her love.
The novel begins hazily – we later come to associate this sense of hurried panic and frantic phrases with Sonya’s drunken states. Yet it is here that we’re introduced to the beautiful dynamic between Tommy and Sonya, and the unconditional love they feel for one another. Despite being just four years old, Tommy presents as much wiser than his age. This makes for an interesting, if uncomfortable, reading; as a reader, we’re able to discern the inappropriateness of the situation, especially during the scenes when Sonya’s role as a ‘fit mother’ is pushed to the limit. Tommy nurses his mother when she is suffering from a hangover and recognises the differences in personality when she drinks. He’s an insightful character, and we immediately understand why Sonya wants to do better by him.
However, Harding ensures this portrayal isn’t as black and white or as simple as we initially may believe. In being vulnerable, Sonya opens herself up to manipulation from the people around her. Though we want to see Sonya get better, we too often experience the same hatred and bitterness as she feels when met with so-called well-wishers who just want to lend a hand. Her lack of initial support is heartbreaking to read and complicates her road to recovery – and her reunion with Tommy – even more. Even when Sonya learns to suppress her outbursts and control her tongue, the world still seems against her, the path ahead lonely.
The dynamic between the male characters in Sonya’s life is especially complex, and Harding does a fantastic job of detailing the layers of interaction, the push and pull between the pairs, in Bright Burning Things.
For starters, Sonya’s father is an incredibly hard character to form a concrete opinion about. He swoops back into Sonya’s life after it is revealed to her that he has instructed Sonya’s neighbour to report on her wellbeing. Sonya initially interprets this as meddling, especially when his concerns land Sonya in a rehabilitation clinic, Tommy living with a stranger, and Herbie (their dog) given away to a new owner. He is distant during her recovery and refuses to indulge any information about Tommy, seeming to want to keep the pair apart. We’re reading this through Sonya’s eyes, though, which does give a bias on how his behaviour is perceived. After reflection, and with new clarity, perhaps we can look at his actions in a different light: a grieving father, who wants to ensure that Sonya doesn’t befall the same fate as his late wife.
Indeed, as the novel progresses, the interactions between the pair become more sincere, her ‘fake sweetness’ turning to something more genuine and loving. Tommy is the central figure that helps repair the relationship too, and the scenes between Grandfather and Grandson are wonderful and tender.
An arguably more sinister character is Sonya’s counsellor-turned-lover David, who she first meets during one of her more extreme dark periods. Initially appearing sweet and well-meaning, the shift that Harding presents in David is striking and impactful. As Sonya overcomes her vices and places Tommy as her main focus, David’s once-kind behaviour morphs into something controlling, nasty and even evil. He had a cold and overbearing presence that Tommy immediately picks up on, again showing his high level of perception of the adult world.
I love the addition of David and really enjoyed that it wasn’t Sonya who was destroying the relationship through her actions. While the path is bumpy, having a physical representation of Sonya’s demons was compelling and aided the story nicely. It gave a bitter face to the vices and helped us understand how Sonya was manipulated into a world of hurt.
It was fascinating to see addiction portrayed in this poignant way – Harding does a brilliant job of considering all angles and treating the illness with the sensitivity it deserves. She carefully selects her language when describing Sonya’s headspace during the darker periods, including her internal conversations with her ‘imp’. The way the disease is described physically too is brutal to read – Sonya barely eats and often pushes her body to the edge when trying to overcome a spell.
The relationship with food is another interesting layer of this novel; Sonya is a vegetarian, and in the beginning, fixates on the death of animals and the consumption of their flesh in an almost obsessive manner. Perhaps by reminding herself of this torture, she is justifying to herself why she too deserves to be hurt or numbed? It’s an image that lessens as Sonya’s focus shifts more towards Tommy but remains powerful nonetheless.
The touching ending is undramatic yet hopeful, making it the ideal finale of this beautifully crafted novel. Despite everything, the connections between loved ones are what holds Sonya’s fragile mind and family together. She finally recognises the shining light in all of them and, most importantly, herself.
Bright Burning Things is published by Bloomsbury Books and is available here.
Lisa Harding is a writer, actress, playwright. She received an MPhil in creative writing from Trinity College Dublin in 2014. Her short stories have been published in the Dublin Review, the Bath Short Story Anthology, HeadStuff, and Winter Papers. Her first novel, Harvesting, won the 2018 Kate O’Brien Award and was shortlisted for an Irish Book Award and the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year Award. She lives in Dublin.
Reviewed by Mariah Feria
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