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Bright Burning Things


Bright Burning Things

Lisa Harding, the internationally bestselling and award-winning author of HARVESTING, makes her American debut with BRIGHT BURNING THINGS, an emotionally resonant and visceral portrait of motherhood, addiction and redemption.

Once a promising actress, Sonya Moriarty is now the single mother of a sweet and imaginative four-year-old named Tommy. Along with their big black dog, Herbie, Sonya and Tommy love to go to the beach, snuggle up and watch television, and talk about the sights around them in poetic, awe-filled descriptions of colors. Sonya loves her son intensely, but she longs for her glamorous days on the stage, being courted by dazzling men and driven around in fast cars. With her own childhood fractured by the death of her mother, and her relationship with her father bordering on total estrangement, her life has become defined by loss. The void left by these losses is filled only partially by her love for her son --- the rest she fills with white wine. Bottles and bottles of white wine.

"This is an incredibly moving but also haunting and intense novel, and Harding’s characters are filled with a seemingly endless depth that infuses what could be a depressing and painfully raw story with heart, humanity and, most surprising of all, hope."

Sonya cannot quite pinpoint how a few after-show drinks became something more, but she knows very well that her thirst for alcohol is unquenchable. As much as it aggravates her body and her moods, it also anesthetizes her emotional pain and feelings of inadequacy. She hoards bottles of wine, keeps extras in a secret stash, and occasionally, in shocking moments of lucidity, throws entire unemptied bottles away…only to retrieve them the next day (of course, even discarded, they are always placed carefully so as not to break or become undrinkable). It is obvious that Sonya has a real problem, but her control is slipping to a point of negligence when it comes to Tommy. Even she cannot ignore his awareness of her problem, his whispers about the “dark fairy” that takes over when she has finished a bottle.

As Harding introduces Sonya and Tommy to the reader, we see not only her love for him, but the parts of her that even she has yet to meet: the rage-filled, manic Sonya who often forgets to feed her son, racks up debt at the local pizza parlor, and nearly sets her home on fire when she forgets that dinner is in the oven. Paranoid and agitated, Sonya snaps at strangers, swats at Tommy and, in a particularly difficult scene, kicks her beloved dog. People are starting to notice her decline, and when a caring elderly neighbor steps in and contacts her father, she is faced with a dramatic choice: get help, or lose her son forever.

Harding writes about addiction expertly, unpacking not only the conflicting urges to survive and to disappear entirely, but the lies that an addiction feeds its host. Even as she agrees to enter a treatment facility run by nuns, Sonya flips back and forth between admitting her problem and adamantly arguing that she has no problem whatsoever. Her mind is a fascinating, painful jumble of lies and difficult truths, and her initial instinct when questioned about her alcohol abuse is to minimize it, which of course only highlights how serious her addiction has become. After a harrowing five-day detox in which “the sweats are bad, the spasms weird, the sensation of spinning sickening, the dreams (hallucinations?) too vivid, too intense,” Sonya emerges sober for the first time in years, only to face an even more painful exploration of her trigger: motherhood.

Harding writes with great compassion for Sonya without ever excusing or writing off her addiction and the bad behaviors that come with it. As she guides her protagonist into a journey of self-discovery, she explores childhood traumas, loneliness, the weight of expectations and, of course, love, the most powerful drug of all. But BRIGHT BURNING THINGS is not a clear-cut story of redemption written in a straight line from rock bottom to success. Harding is much more keenly aware of the stops and starts of recovery, the ways that an addiction can trick someone at their most vulnerable. Even better, she is able to trace --- with devastating and nuanced prose and insight --- the underlying emotions of addiction, the ones that linger long after detoxification and that, left untreated, can act as their own sort of prison, condemning their host to a lifetime of relapses and partial recoveries.

For Sonya, this means unpacking the ways that her childhood (and her hazy memories of her mother) influences her parenting now, and facing how she herself is causing lasting damage to her child. Her sobriety is only the beginning of her journey to salvation, and when she finally meets her son in a sober state, she is forced to reckon with the harsh reality of his trauma while fighting to earn his love.

Harding is courageous and unflinching in her portrayal of addiction and the effect it has on everyone who comes into contact with it. This is an incredibly moving but also haunting and intense novel, and Harding’s characters are filled with a seemingly endless depth that infuses what could be a depressing and painfully raw story with heart, humanity and, most surprising of all, hope.

Perfect for readers of THE GIRLS AT 17 SWANN STREET, BRIGHT BURNING THINGS announces the arrival of a strong, compelling new voice in American fiction and one from whom we will no doubt see many more excellent novels, original characters and impressive emotional arcs.

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on December 10, 2021

Bright Burning Things
by Lisa Harding

  • Publication Date: December 13, 2022
  • Genres: Fiction, Women's Fiction
  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: HarperVia
  • ISBN-10: 006309715X
  • ISBN-13: 9780063097155