Lisa Harding’s novel about an alcoholic actress going into rehab can be heartbreaking, writes Emer O’Hanlon
Bright Burning Things opens in dazzling sunshine, with the narrator Sonya walking along Sandymount Strand with her son, Tommy, and their rescue dog, Herbie. Apparently on a whim — urged on by a nameless ‘imp’ — Sonya takes an impromptu dip in the sea. “My underwear could pass for a bikini,” she tells us, “so this is fine this is fine this is fine.” The illusion quickly shatters. A concerned onlooker questions Tommy; Sonya dashes out of the sea, snatches him from her, and drives away at breakneck speed, all the while still in her sopping wet underwear. Once home, she cracks open a bottle of wine. And then another.
Sonya, once a successful actress, left the London stage when she became pregnant. The smell of the greasepaint and the thrill of treading the boards were not the only the highs she chased in her previous life. The intoxicating effects of sex, fast cars and drugs helped to suppress the symphony of voices she hears, urging her towards self-destruction. Now a single mother on the dole, she relies on (often shoplifted) white wine to drown out these voices — christened an ‘imp’ by Sonya, ‘the bad fairy’ by Tommy.
Disaster is avoided, to begin with; but it doesn’t take long for Sonya’s “barely-holding-it-together” facade to break. A near-miss with an oven left on and an argument with a neighbour lead to an altercation in a pizzeria, the most desperately sad and upsetting scene in the novel. Before long, Sonya’s father is at the door with an ultimatum, and she agrees, reluctantly, to detox. But once inside the rehab centre (run, of course, by nuns) Sonya begins a reluctant recovery. It’s not helped by her fears that Tommy has been taken into social care and the dog abandoned, all the while navigating the uncomfortable relationship she has struck up with her counsellor David, a witness to her breakdown in the pizzeria, and part of the reason she’s in rehab to begin with.
Author Lisa Harding is a retired actor herself, and has described leaving the stage as feeling “a bit like walking out of an abusive relationship”. These elements of the career that she has criticised — the desire for attention, the damaging adrenalin high of performance — are realised brilliantly in Sonya. It’s clear that, for Sonya, acting was both a relief and an irritant for her pre-existing issues. The novel, in fact, has the feel of a monologue, held together by Sonya’s mesmerising voice, a glorious mix of barely-held-together sanity and unbridled honesty. “My imp is waving, beckoning me into the shimmering water,” she tells us at the beginning. “Hello Elation, you spangly bitch.’” Sonya is elegantly set up as an unreliable narrator from the start. She resents her father for failing to keep in touch with Tommy — and has communicated this to us over a 70-page span — but the lie slips almost as soon as he appears on the page:
“And you couldn’t even send your grandson a Christmas card?”
“Sonya, there’s selective memory at play here. I did send cards, which were returned unopened.”
It’s true I kind of edited that part out. It almost felt too painful to get those scraps when he wouldn’t show up in any real sense.
Sonya is a beautifully realised character and through her Harding successfully pulls off a difficult balancing act. She allows us to enjoy Sonya’s presence (mostly), and to feel for her, but she reserves the sympathetic weight of the story fully for those who end up hurt by Sonya’s destructive behaviour, especially Tommy. Her interactions with her son are heartbreaking and immensely difficult to read. Addiction is neither glamourised, demonised, nor excused.
Sonya’s life before Tommy is presented to us in fleeting glimpses, and true to the pseudo-monologue form, there is no extended exposition. Instead, small incidents and phrases trigger memories in Sonya that we see only disjointedly: reminiscences of past lovers, scattered memories of her mother and hints at trauma that has yet to be dealt with.
Harding refrains from laying on tragedy at the end, holding back from what could have been a much bleaker conclusion. But she’s also careful to avoid anything too heart-warming. We’re under no illusion that Sonya has been ‘cured’ after the ‘lessons’ the novel has taught her. As such, there is a welcome lack of closure by the end. Family secrets, the outcome of her relationship with David, the lasting impact of the separation on her son, are uncertain. Hope, where Harding feeds it to us, is only ever presented cautiously.
Fiction: Bright Burning Things by Lisa Harding
Bloomsbury, 320 pages, hardback, €21;e-book £7.13