It’s moments of sobering clarity such as this, and their promise of a redemptive ending, that carry the reader through so many harrowing pages of self-evisceration. While comparisons have been made between Sonya and Agnes, the alcoholic mother in Douglas Stuart’s Booker-winning Shuggie Bain, Harding’s protagonist is a singular creation: complex, contrary, drily funny in a characteristically Irish fashion. Written with great energy and generosity, Bright Burning Things is the raw and emotional story of a woman’s search for self-knowledge; one that grips from the beginning.
Harding retains, to the end, those ambiguities that made Sonya a stellar performer of the broken women of Ibsen and Chekov. By refusing to finally “solve” Sonya, she boldly exposes those hypocrisies of the chattering classes that create manipulative mothers and destroy childhoods.
Bright Burning Things alerts us to the cost of familial silences, and it is here that the novel’s landscape rises into view. “In Ireland”, Colm Tóibín once wrote, “what happens within the family remains so secretive, so painfully locked within each person.” Even while Sonya demands the truth, sealed inside her father, she upholds a lie to Tommy, “the kindest of lies”, that his own father (who abandoned a pregnant Sonya) is dead. In an early scene, we see Tommy “crying soundlessly”; later, Tommy, who is becoming “increasingly withdrawn” away from his mother, “wears his silence like a shield”. Trauma, Harding implies, has been locked in for another generation, the recycled core of familial relations: unconscious, universal and, perhaps, inevitable.
Lisa Harding is a former actor and a playwright — and it shows. Bright Burning Things, her second novel, is a virtuoso dramatic monologue, one that has already been optioned for a film, with Harding writing the screenplay. At its centre is the voice of Sonya Moriarty, once a Rada-trained actor in London, now back in Dublin with her four-year-old son, living on benefits, and stealing food and clothes to get by. The pair live an isolated life, intentionally on Sonya’s part. Her narration chronicles a chaotic, intense, alcohol-fuelled lurch from one crisis to the next.
Harding has an occasional weakness for distractingly busy prose (when Sonya welcomes a manic phase by thinking, “Hello Elation, you spangly bitch,” I was in danger of being jerked out of the story), but she shows the humanity in Sonya without ever sentimentalising her addiction. Boozy women are having a literary moment — Bright Burning Things joins Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine and Shuggie Bain as a portrait of female wreckage. Harding’s fine and affecting novel can hold its own respectably in the company.