Parenthood can be a challenge, albeit a rewarding one, even under ideal circumstances. If a parent is facing an illness, however, the challenge is far greater. That’s what Sonya Moriarty, a former stage actor with alcoholism who is raising her 4-year-old son alone in Dublin, contends with in Bright Burning Things, the latest novel from actor and playwright Lisa Harding.
Addiction seems to be the only constant that connects Sonya’s theatrical past and her maternal present. She even acknowledges that the ease with which she polishes off multiple bottles of wine in one sitting is “what made me such a great actress: extreme and electric.”
Extreme and electric are qualities she could get away with when directors bought fancy cars for her. Now that her world involves driving her beat-up old car to the grocery store to buy the orange-colored food that her son will eat, those attributes are less glamorous.
In a devastating early sequence, Sonya takes Tommy and their dog, Herbie, to the beach, only to get drunk that night, come dangerously close to burning down the house and wake up the next afternoon to find her son and dog missing.
The brisk narrative then shifts to Sonya’s attempts at maintaining sobriety and reclaiming her son’s trust. They begin when her father, absent from her life for the past two years, forces her to enter a rehabilitation program. Harding introduces characters who, for better or worse, affect Sonya’s efforts, from the neighbor who keeps a close eye on her to the nuns who care for her at the Catholic-run center and a counselor whose interest becomes more personal, and more insistent, as Sonya recovers.
Much of the story is predictable, but a ride can still be pleasant even when you know where you’re going. Sympathetic readers will feel pangs for Sonya’s experiences, and Harding’s descriptions of intensified sensations are unforgettable, from rain that “sounds like artillery fire” when it strikes a windowpane to cracks in the hospital ceiling that look like “portals to another world.” Bright Burning Things is a redemptive portrait of addiction and the extreme emotions of a parent in distress