Sonya’s mother died when she was a child. Her father is cold and distant; his new wife, Lara, expands that distance by verbally stiff-arming Sonya at every turn. Her other relationships — with men, with nosy Mrs. O’Malley across the street, with the withholding and judge-y cashier at the pizza place — range from strained to hostile to destructive.
Sonya’s one true love is Tommy, her 4-year-old son … OK, she also feels deeply for their rescue dog and constant companion, Herbie. It’s the three of them against the world, which is an unhealthy attitude for a mother to be pouring into a young child, especially when all she’s pouring into her own body and soul is alcohol. Copious amounts of wine, enough that Sonya blacks out and repeatedly endangers Tommy and Herbie. (“I’ll make sure he eats later,” she tells herself as she starts her dinnertime drinking. But Tommy sometimes goes hungry.)
Sonya, who feels every emotion deeply, perhaps too deeply, gave up a burgeoning acting career to become a single mother. She loves Tommy fiercely but badly misses both the structure of work and the ability to channel her intense feelings into a role, leaving her floundering until she grabs yet another drink.
Lisa Harding’s second novel, “Bright Burning Things” is moving — humane and emotionally scrubbed raw — as a depiction of Sonya’s journey to the bottom of the bottle and (after her father’s intervention) her desperate efforts to claw her way back to sobriety to regain her life.
Harding, a former actress, made her debut with the award-winning novel “Harvesting,” which dealt with sex trafficking. This novel, set in Dublin, was inspired by a family member struggling with alcoholism. In Sonya, Harding has created a flawed and reckless protagonist, one we keep rooting for even as we see that she is harming Tommy.
When Tommy asks his mother why she’s crying, she says her eyes are merely watering because of the salt spray at the beach.
Tommy doesn’t buy it, so she tickles him “until he’s writhing and hitting back at me, tears flowing from his own eyes. ‘See, Tommy, you’re crying now, and you’re happy. Tears don’t always mean you’re sad.’
“‘But I don’t like so many tickles, Yaya. It hurts.’”
When first published in the United Kingdom, the book drew frequent comparisons to “Shuggie Bain,” Douglas Stuart’s instant classic from 2020, even though that was told from the perspective of young Shuggie and his siblings as their mother slowly drank herself to death in 1980s Glasgow.
Both books deal with addiction and the trauma that befalls the loved ones of addicts but Harding’s first-person narrative reveals the damage Sonya is doing from inside the chaos and turmoil of her mind. She makes excuses, seethes with anger (often lashing out to her detriment), frets over the consequences of her behavior, and then repeats the cycle. Sonya is not an unreliable narrator — we can see the reality of each situation alongside her denial of it — so much as she is an unreliable parent.
The autobiographical “Shuggie Bain” was, as the author acknowledged, “among the saddest” books ever, even as it showed children’s natural resilience. “Bright Burning Things,” by contrast, offers both Sonya and the readers strands of hope. And despite its grim narrative, the book has its lighter, funnier moments.
Sonya has family support, even as she resists the intervention that takes away her son and lands her in a rehab run by a religious charity. Separated from her son, she is slowly forced to face hard truths, like the day she looks around at the men who are marking time in the same program. Harding channels Sonya’s exposed nerve endings with a potent poignancy:
“These men, their lives seemed inevitable, their destinies charted from the moment they were born to their crackhead fathers, criminal mothers, junkies, alcos, selfish, stunted, addled parents. Like me. These men were born to mothers like me.”
While Sonya resists embracing the surrender to a higher power, she does find sympathetic and thoughtful allies there, in Sister Anne and an older recidivist named Jimmy, who has accumulated plenty of wisdom in a lifetime of cycling in and out of rehab — wisdom he can impart to Sonya, even if it hasn’t helped him break the pattern.
Their help doesn’t provide any simple answers or pat endings for Sonya. Harding is too determined to make us see the potential pitfalls that will forever lurk out there — when Sonya starts to accept, even embrace, her vulnerability in her effort to get back to Tommy, it is David, a counselor-turned-boyfriend, whose own issues and manipulative behavior threaten to derail Sonya’s small steps back toward life.
Earlier, while Sonya was still manically trying to entertain Tommy while drinking herself into oblivion, she confessed that she knew her world was spinning way too fast. “I just wish I could do life, in the ordinary sense,” she said. By the end, she has finally figured how to do just that … even if Harding makes no promises that it will be easy.
BRIGHT BURNING THINGS
By Lisa Harding
HarperVia, 336 pp., $26.99
Stuart Miller is the author of “The 100 Greatest Days in New York Sports” and coauthor of “The Other Islands of New York City.”