Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Wednesday, October 27, 2021: Maximum Shelf: Bright Burning Things

Harpervia: Bright Burning Things by Lisa Harding

Harpervia: Bright Burning Things by Lisa Harding

Harpervia: Bright Burning Things by Lisa Harding

Harpervia: Bright Burning Things by Lisa Harding

Bright Burning Things

by Lisa Harding

Irish novelist Lisa Harding doesn't shrink from difficult subjects; her debut, Harvesting, took on the tough topic of sex trafficking so skillfully that it won the 2018 Kate O'Brien Award and was a finalist for the Irish Book Awards' Newcomer of the Year. In her soul-piercing sophomore novel, Bright Burning Things, Harding has crafted a sensitive, nuanced portrait of a single mother whose deep descent into alcoholism jeopardizes everything she holds most dear.

Harding's opening segment is a similar experience to riding a tilt-a-whirl: a fleeting moment of stability that soon accelerates into whirling, whiplashing flight. Readers first meet Sonya, her four-year-old son, Tommy, and Herbie, their rescue dog, as they stroll on the beach. The family outing looks wholesome and normal from Sonya's perspective as she playfully kisses Tommy "over and over as he laughs and pretend-wrestles me away." However, the idyllic image shatters when she impulsively strips to her underwear and goes swimming, leaving the child unsupervised and the dog unleashed. When a concerned stranger tries to intervene, Sonya berates her, bundles boy and dog into her car, and speeds off wet and undressed, "bare feet slipping on the pedals." It's readily apparent that Tommy isn't enjoying the trip, and that readers cannot trust Sonya's narrative integrity. The tilt-a-whirl is in motion, and the g-force pressing readers into their seats won't let up anytime soon.

Through her capricious yet graceful stream-of-consciousness narration, Sonya reveals that her once-promising career as an actress ran dry after Tommy was born. Her glamour days gone, she supports herself and "my boys" with government benefits supplemented with theft. To calm her anxiety, she focuses on "the promise waiting for me in the fridge," a bottle of white wine. She drinks to calm herself from the stress of the beach incident, then drinks more to tame her impulse to force-feed a recalcitrant Tommy his dinner of microwaved baked beans. Tommy winds up giving his dinner to the dog, but, under the influence of "the liquid silk that could anaesthetize me to everything," Sonya simply admires her son's sweet nature and tells herself she will feed him later. Later, however, she awakens to a burning smell and leaping flames in the oven; she has fallen asleep with the broiler on. After the fire is out, Sonya soothes her "jangling" feeling by drinking another bottle, her back turned to her son so she can "[t]ell myself that what Tommy doesn't see can't hurt him."

The situation deteriorates as Sonya fails to provide for Tommy and Herbie, often frightening them with her erratic, sometimes dangerous behavior. She clearly bears profound love for them but smothers herself in a thick layer of denial that rationalizes her actions. She assures readers that other people are the problem: Tommy uses a supercilious tone, the neighbor who worries about them is nosy, the man who intervenes when she hits Tommy has an "overdeveloped sense of responsibility." Her moments of clarity convey her lack of control, such as when Tommy asks if she is thirsty and she silently replies, "This is unquenchable, sweetheart. I'm sorry I'm sorry I'm sorry." She is at times impossible to like, and yet impossible not to love as she haphazardly reveals snatches of unresolved grief for her lost career and the mother she lost as a little girl. Her child and pet are unsupported and vulnerable, and yet so is Sonya, who is a parent but not truly a grownup.

When her neighbor notifies the authorities, Sonya's estranged father presses her into entering a rehab facility run by Catholic nuns. The recovery period brings the stress of separation from Tommy, whom her father places in foster care after promising to look after him (and who farms out Herbie). Catastrophic thoughts about his well-being prey on her mind. At the same time, Sonya looks at the male residents and realizes their parents were addicts, too. If she can't get better, she may doom Tommy to the same fate. This epiphany mirrors the plot's elegant illustration of the cyclical nature of trauma. Parallels between the way Sonya's father treats her and her actions toward Tommy show how elders can hand down trauma and abuse like family heirlooms. Sonya's romantic relationships echo her early childhood experiences as she unconsciously gravitates toward a toxic but familiar dynamic. With these ties binding her, what Tommy calls the "[b]ad fairy in the bad bottle" will always wait in the wings, its shadow threatening to flicker back over their lives.

Like its heroine, Bright Burning Things is defiant and challenging, a wisp of crackling flame that illuminates even as it devours. Harding's intimate and exquisite character work draws readers toward new depths of empathy and forgiveness. With its tenderness for the protagonist, this novel stands as a searing indictment of the stigma placed on addiction and the undue burden laid on mothers, and as a plea for understanding as much as for change. --Jaclyn Fulwood

Harpervia, $26.99, hardcover, 336p., 9780063097148, December 7, 2021

Harpervia: Bright Burning Things by Lisa Harding

Lisa Harding: A Clarion Call for Empathy

(photo: Francesca Mantovani)

Writer, actress and playwright Lisa Harding received an MPhil in creative writing from Trinity College Dublin in 2014. Her short stories have been published in the Dublin Review, the Bath Short Story Anthology, HeadStuff and Winter Papers. Her first novel, Harvesting, won the 2018 Kate O'Brien Award and was shortlisted for an Irish Book Award and the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year Award. Her latest novel is Bright Burning Things, coming from HarperVia on December 7, 2021. She lives in Dublin.

Why did you feel addiction and parenthood were an important and compelling combination of themes?

Addiction is never just about the suffering individual; it affects all those who love them. Alcoholism is a family disease which makes all those in the presence of the alcoholic as distressed and anxious as the addict.

My own life has been shaped by loving people with addiction and being in their care when that felt like a very frightening place. I went through phases of being critical of these people, of assessing the damage done to me and seeing their behavior as selfish and childish. Through writing this novel, I was able to climb inside that afflicted psyche and inhabit that reality, and it was not easy. I gained a deeper understanding of the struggles faced by a parent in the throes of addiction. The inner conflict felt at times unbearable, which in turn made my character need to drink more. I finally understood it was not a "choice" motivated by selfishness.

My central character is a single mother with unresolved trauma from her past. She is aware of how destabilizing her behavior is for her young son, but she is unable to combat her addiction on her own. The story of parental alcoholism is a universal one and has far-reaching effects for the next generation. I wanted to lay bare the devastating reach of addiction: how it can erode a person's sense of themselves, thwart the best intentions, distort a mother's perspective, and the effects it can have on a young dependent life. I wanted to counterbalance this with a maternal love that strives to find its purest expression.

Sonya is compelling because you made a complex human rather than a safe, instantly lovable version of a woman and mother.

I wanted to write a character who is still taboo: a middle-class mother damaging her child because of her addiction to alcohol, seemingly selfish, seemingly unaware. She is not monstrous, although her behavior is at times.

She's out of her element when we meet her in the novel: isolated, struggling with single parenthood and an overwhelming addiction to alcohol. Sonya is a talented actress who becomes unmoored when her greatest "hit" (the charge of performing) is no longer available to her. I have experience of being an actress who lived for a long time on the edge, addicted to the highs and attention of performing. When you remove this hit, where do you put that charge? I am interested in the nature of addiction, how it can shapeshift and attach itself to various things, people and substances.

Historically, the tendency in fiction has been to sensationalize or stigmatize addiction. How did you work through creating a sympathetic character whose actions are not sympathetic?

Addiction affects so many people in all walks of life. There is nothing sensational or "other" about the experience. There is no shame in suffering with addiction. The shame comes from the secrets and lies people tell themselves and the harm they cause others. The mother-child relationship is loaded with the potential for blame. I wanted to pose the question: What if you cause terrible harm but don't mean to? It is a momentous task to face addiction and find a way through.

I also wanted to express how hard it is for Sonya to look after herself, and to lay bare the reality: How can she possibly be responsible for another? Motherhood doesn't magically make someone different. Sonya is encumbered with complex unresolved grief and generational trauma. It is inevitable this will be passed down, unless there is intervention and her past can be faced. How can someone possibly be a good mother if they haven't experienced it themselves? Sonya's central journey is to learn to parent herself before she can be that safe haven for Tommy. She wants to be a good mother, and I think this is what makes her worst actions bearable. She is in conflict with herself and her better intentions, and she displays a willingness to change.

How has past trauma precipitated Sonya's fight with alcoholism?

There are so many theories around addiction: inherited, chemical, genetic, a reaction to trauma, or an uninhibited personality with impulse control issues. I wanted to introduce Sonya's past to us in hazy moments, much as she experiences it herself. She was eight when her mother died from an unexplained "illness." The only thing Sonya recalls about her mother is a sensation of spinning around her, a sensation of feeling speedy, out of control, unsafe--a universal experience for children in alcoholic families and something she is re-creating in her own son. Her father is unable to deal with his grief, or his daughter's grief. He throws himself into a controlling relationship with a woman who allows no space for his daughter. When I was writing him, Sonya's father seemed to me to be a broken man. Again, his behavior towards his daughter is difficult to understand, but I knew there was a difficult love there, one that he didn't have the capacity to express. Again, I felt the potential for a kind of healing, an acceptance of each other exactly as they are.

What barriers stand between Sonya and her sobriety?

Alcohol is a particularly difficult drug to put down as society has normalized it to such an extent that it can be found everywhere. It is associated with "relaxation" and "having a good time," when for the alcoholic the reality couldn't be further from the truth. Sonya needs more support in her life. She needs to find a way to manage her own life so that she is able to give full expression to who she is: a highly charged, talented actress and a loving human being who has the capacity to become her own person, as well as a safe, stable mother to Tommy.

What do you most hope readers will take away from Bright Burning Things?

The stigma around "bad" parenting needs to be interrogated so we can break down this notion of the ideal mother as someone who should be selfless, giving, mature and loving at all times. Parents are human, flawed, with their own wounds. It is a clarion call for empathy for the suffering parent and the frightened child who might display these traits as a parent unless the right intervention happens. The cycle can be broken. I'd like readers to grapple with the distinction between a person and the disease of addiction. I felt it was important to write a nuanced, complex depiction of alcoholism, to lay bare that rutted path to recovery, which is never linear or straightforward, but which, in Sonya's case, reveals a glimpse of a life lived in the light. --Jaclyn Fulwood

Powered by: Xtenit