Bright Burning Things by Lisa Harding review – gripping quest for self-knowledge

Like Masha in The Seagull, Sonya, the heroine of Lisa Harding’s intense and unnerving second novel, is in mourning for her life. Her Chekhovian name seems apt when we learn that “failed actress, failed mother” Sonya once triumphed in productions of Chekhov and Ibsen on the London stage, before finding herself singlehandedly bringing up her four-year-old son Tommy in the Dublin suburbs, battling alcohol dependency. There’s a lot to lament, and even more to rail against, in a novel that becomes a ferocious jeremiad against life’s suffocating forces.

After an eye-watering opening scene in which Sonya leaves her son on Sandymount strand while she takes a swim in her underwear, then returns home to sink a bottle of white wine before blacking out while cooking fish fingers, her father stages an intervention. The result is a stay in rehab, during which she suffers a heart-wrenching separation from Tommy, with no guarantee she’ll regain custody. While resisting the 12-step programme, she’s forced to reflect on how complicit she’s been in her own catastrophe: “I think of all the tall tales I spun in school … Was I, even then, destined for this?” Later, there’s the poignant admission: “I just wish I could do life, in the ordinary sense.”

Only the appearance of David, a solicitor, trained counsellor and former addict, offers Sonya any hope of rising from the ashes of her life into a future that might contain love and family. Yet she’s only too aware, to use Larkin’s phrase, that man hands on misery to man. Observing her fellow recovering addicts, she notes with a shiver: “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.”

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