In ‘Bright Burning Things,’ a Single Mother Struggles with Sobriety for the Sake of Her Young Son

bright burning things lisa harding

Sonya is a “failed actress, failed mother” who has traded the bright lights of the London stage for a life as a single mother struggling with alcoholism. Her heart-wrenching path to sobriety is at the center of Bright Burning Things, a new novel by Irish writer, actor and playwright Lisa Harding (Harvesting).

Living in a Dublin suburb with her 4-year-old son, Tommy, and their beloved dog, Herbie, Sonya is barely staying afloat. Though she obsesses over when and where she’ll get her next drink, she adores Tommy and recognizes her shortcomings as a mother. “Sanity has to hide her truth at all costs, Sanity has to smile and suppress, Sanity has to present a neatly packaged front to the world,” Harding writes.

Eventually, her father, with whom she has a far from perfect relationship, stages an intervention and sends her to a three-month rehab program with a religious charity (no, the nuns aren’t all bad). Tommy and Herbie, meanwhile, will stay with him, with no promise that they’ll be returned to Sonya upon successful completion of the program.

At rehab, she has moments of clarity, seeming to understand—through the men she’s going through the program with—how her actions might have long-term effect on the person she loves most. “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.”

Throughout, Harding’s depiction of a protagonist in the throes of addiction is brutally honest but non-judgmental. You want to shake Sonya for her misgivings, but even more than that, you want this deeply complex character to succeed for her own sake and the sake of her son. When she laments, ““I just wish I could do life, in the ordinary sense,” you want that for her.

Gripping from start to finish, Bright Burning Things is a frank portrayal of flawed motherhood, substance abuse and generational trauma. It’s not always an easy read, but it’s undoubtedly a compelling one.

sarah stiefvater
Sarah Stiefvater

Wellness Director

Sarah Stiefvater is PureWow's Wellness Director. She's been at PureWow for ten years, and in that time has written and edited stories across all categories, but currently focuses...
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