Caroline Spalding, Features Correspondent
Review: Bright Burning Things By Lisa HardingBright Burning Things
is a beautifully crafted insight into a dark world, full of trepidation, leaving the reader at times almost fearful to turn the next page. The opening paragraph gives voice to the evocative nature of the prose: we meet Sonya, together with son Tommy, walking across the sand at a local beach, “warm velvet beneath the soles of my bare feet,” and Sonya fleetingly feels “an intense feeling of connection with all that is right and good in the world.” Yet, as quickly as this scene descends to her fleeing the beach, driving home in only her underwear, do we come to realise how unstable her world is. She both falls into problematic situations and creates her very own; her escape from this reality is found at the bottom of a bottle. Her saviour is also her own worst enemy, served chilled from the fridge, blocking out the many demons haunting her waking hours.
What Bright Burning Things
does not provide is the comfort many of us seek when choosing a piece of fiction; instead, from the start we enter the whirlwind reality of this disordered existence. But our attention is gripped; we read with apprehension, but equally captivated.
Sonya is a single mum, devoted to her son. The painful truth is that she leans on him as much as he leans on her; a four-year-old child, helplessly reliant on his mother who despite the bond, appears wholly ill-equipped to deal with the practicalities of parenthood. What’s tragic about Tommy’s story is that it is all left unsaid; we don’t and cannot know what his reality looks like through his own eyes. Instead, we see only from the unreliable perspective of Sonya. We don’t warm to her character at first, but as we accompany her on the journey into recovery, we slowly, reluctantly, start to change our view.
She was an actress, and so much of her (sober) persona that she projects to the world is just a character of her own creation. She has a strong intellect, her acting may have provided the means for her to escape her own reality in the past, as if she projected so much truth and assertion into her characters that even she was caught up in the fiction. The outside world does not know who the real Sonya is, and to some extent neither do we: whilst not necessarily a conscious or willfully unreliable narrator, the gaps in our knowledge derive from what she either cannot remember, or what she chooses not to recall.
However, we do slowly begin to learn aspects from her distant past that might explain her current state of mind. Clearly tormented, conflicted, even when sober, we witness her painful relationship with her father; she needs him as much as she wants to push him away. Later, when faced with a relationship that hints at coercion, albeit softened with affection, her weakness in response is difficult to absorb: she knows what could come, but she is powerless to resist.
The force of the narrative rests in frankness: Sonya is both acutely self-aware but in deep denial. The writing moves at pace, often disjointedly, as Sonya's mind does not follow a straight trajectory. Self-loathing goes hand in hand with her awareness, she knows she can be, and often is, vile, and she doesn't necessarily seek to blame others, or herself; she remains constantly conflicted. She would not admit it, but what she needs is structure, however she strongly resists all interference. Perhaps alcohol gave her a sense of agency, and false perception of her ability to cope and that’s why she fell into its trap. We can speculate, but Sonya is a character so complex that I’d venture to suggest that it would be impossible to cite any single causative factor. She is undoubtedly a shell, a shadow of what she once may have been, and perhaps it’s this emptiness that caused the downward spiral; it’s when we feel hollow that we start to make mistakes. However, the catalyst for her alcoholism we cannot and will not discover, and neither, do we think, will she.
What is painful is that despite all events, Sonya will not attempt to resolve all that troubles her. Instead, she seeks to suppress and dilute: her modus operandi appears to be to project an impression of normality, but has she ever known normality? Sober, she determines this will "be the hardest acting job ever. All the characters I have played up to now were able to give full vent to their passions and furies. My new character is called ‘Ms Sanity’ and Sanity has to hide her truth at all costs."
Through the relationship with her son, we witness the depth of her affection and the lengths to which she will go to protect him. The stability he provides is what sustains her on the road to recovery. Even though we breathe a sigh of relief as she enters rehab, as she comes out, the anxiety returns – who knows if she will make it? Without alcohol to distract her, will she be able to cope with the torment that accompanies her every day?
Bright Burning Things
is a book to remember. It's a carefully observed portrait of a person in despair - chilling, haunting, resonant and disturbing. It gives voice and humanity to alcoholism; a candid account detailing the complexity of the condition. But it is also a moving account of the need for human connection, for compassion, for partnership: however independent a person might feel, deep down, humanity calls for its companions, and without them we truly are lost.
Bright Burning Things
is published by Bloomsbury