I was introduced to this book at an online event hosted by Bryony Gordon to explore how we talk about alcohol and relationships in literature. Lisa was on the panel, along with Shuggie Bain author Douglas Stuart (that one’s on my Christmas list) and I was really taken by the words from all three authors…
I finished reading Bright Burning Things by Lisa Harding last night and I’m going to give it 5 stars…but not because it was great fun to read. It wasn’t. But like all art, we need to be provoked in many different ways to really understand the world around us. Thanks to Lisa’s literary talents, Bright Burning Things allowed me to step inside the shoes of someone struggling and not only see the challenges faced, but to feel them too.
Bright Burning Things is about former actress and current single mum Sonya and her destructive relationship with alcohol that soon devastates and jeopardises her relationship with her four year old son, Tommy.
The book opens in chaos. We know Sonya is drunk, and we’re pretty much sharing in her double vision and broken thoughts. It’s exhausting, and incredibly difficult not to feel frustrated at the neglect that she is putting Tommy and their lovable dog Herbie through. Even though this is written from the point of view of Sonya, you can practically feel her boys’ hunger pangs, as she falls in and out of consciousness, leaving Tommy and Herbie to fend for themselves. We don’t need to read Tommy’s mind to know how scared he is and how much of an adult he is trying to be in the absence of an attentive mother. His actions and words show us just how frightened he is, regardless of how our unreliable narrator sees them through her warped intoxicated mind.
Without going too much into the plot and sharing spoilers, this is a story of getting sober, facing a past and trying to become a good mum. Having looked on the Goodreads reviews, most of which are great, I wonder if perhaps the reason that some readers are left feeling dissatisfied is because Sonya’s problems don’t disappear neatly and tidily once the alcohol has dried up. She doesn’t automatically become a good mum overnight because she’s sober. And I think this is why I found the book so compelling. In many ways, I feel that this is shining a light on the fact that problems with addiction are less about the substance, and more about an underlying pain or trauma. That’s definitely what comes to mind in Sonya’s case.
Her problematic relationship with her dad might be due to her drinking. But it might also be due to the fact that he is also a broken man, having lost his wife, Sonya’s mum, many years ago. With two broken people there’s rarely a clear right or wrong, just a case of neither being especially present for the other.
We also meet a love interest who, sadly, appears to be gaslighting Sonya and controlling her. You might be tempted to wonder if Sonya’s simply over-reacting, putting up barriers, not allowing herself to fall in love. But then you remember his words. And regardless of what Sonya thinks and feels about him, there’s definitely something disturbing about his behaviour. Another broken soul perhaps?
Recovery can be an amazing, life-changing experience for those who find it. But it’s rarely a straight line of upwards progression and positivity. And I think that’s what we’re seeing here. That alcohol was covering something up, hiding some pain, allowing Sonya to function – until she could function with it no more. But without alcohol, Sonya is still clearly unwell – and she has to almost rebuild her life from scratch, learning how to be a mum just as any new mum might. It’s frustrating because you want things to be OK. You want to believe that, with the wine bottles out of the way, Sonya will be responsible, and she’ll put her son and her pets first. And you can see her try – in the packed lunch she rushes to buy for Tommy’s school dinner, only to be reprimanded for getting it wrong.
And, once again, she’s off swimming in the sea leaving Tommy and her dog and kitten shivering on the beach. Or she’s racing around the park in the rain while they run free and alone…
Sonya is clearly trying to escape her demons. She’s desperately trying to calm her racing thoughts and keep herself on track. She’s putting her sobriety first. Which is a good thing – she might not be perfect, but she’s not dangerously drunk. And if she wants to look after her family, she has to put sobriety first. The problem here isn’t her approach, more, it’s her circumstances. She has nobody she can trust to lean on. She has to battle the bad fairies while simultaneously being a mum. Some people might come out of rehab with a partner or close friend able to pick up on the day to day responsibilities giving them time to invest in recovery. Sonya doesn’t have that – she’s just doing her best.
Sonya is flawed and often infuriating – but she isn’t unlikeable. You feel frustrated with her just as you do any character you’re cheering on who’s doing something you know, as the reader or viewer, is no good for them whatsoever. Whether it’s someone going it alone into the darkness outside to check where the strange noises were coming from, taking back an abusive partner, or, in Sonya’s case, swimming in the sea and leaving her son alone on the beach.
The ingredients for recovery from any mental health problem are multi-dimensional – just as the causes of them are. Which is why we don’t see a healthy and happy ending here. Sonya doesn’t have the support networks around her. She doesn’t have the therapy she needs to face her past trauma. She doesn’t have the coaching she needs to learn to be a good mum again.
Don’t read this book looking for a happy ever after. But if you want to really understand the complexities of addiction and recovery – including the ugly bits and the darker bits – through beautiful writing and real characters, then this book will be an eye opener to how some people strive to survive, and how a talented writer uses her craft to take you directly into her character’s chaotic mind.
I don’t think we need to relate to a character to find a book invaluable and powerful for whatever reason. I didn’t relate to Sonya, but I found empathy for her. And I feel as though the book concludes with Sonya at the very beginning of her recovery journey. And that’s OK. Because recovery, surely, lasts a lifetime.