Lisa Harding follows up her acclaimed novel Harvesting with this dazzling yet deeply unsettling portrait of a spiralling addict.
Sonya is a former actor who enjoyed some success, and all the trappings that came with it, while treading the boards in London. She's not faring as well a few years on, struggling with her new role as full-time mom to her adorable four-year-old, Tommy. She loves him with an intensity that frightens them both at times; 'this is the only place in the whole world I now hold any power’, she laments, as she squeezes him tightly in her arms.
It’s clear that Sonya adores her son, but their relationship is underpinned by an uncomfortable truth - that choosing him may have been to the detriment of her career. ‘You’re making a mistake Sonya. You’re not motherhood material’, Tommy’s father warned, before opting out altogether. Or perhaps it was Sonya’s penchant for alcohol that upended it all? She’s a slave to her cravings for it now; ‘the bloody imp’ always tempting her. She barrells down the aisles of the supermarket, nerves jangling, towards the bottles and their alluring clink, pausing only to toss some frozen ‘fishies’ in the trolley or shout at a well-meaning stranger. ‘Speed helps’, she says of her frantic car journeys with Tommy and dog Herbie in tow, the speedometer in sync with her racing thoughts. She strives for oblivion, be it by by sex or by substance. ‘Failed actress, failed mother’, is her mantra.
Heartbreakingly, Tommy has learnt to tend to his mother, who he calls ‘Yaya’, after her daily binges. ‘Will Tommy think to bring me in water?’, she wonders, splayed out on her bed in yesterday’s clothes, ‘he should know to do that by now.’ It’s a grim existence for a child in their formative years, and while Sonya worries her destructive behaviour is taking a negative toll on him, it’s not enough to curb her ways; ‘his little head full of bad fairies and black birds of worry and his tummy that’s often sore, his filthy home, and his mother that’s a lush. A selfish, selfish, selfish lush’. She berates anyone who tries to intervene, like her weary father and curtain-twitching neighbour. She’s furious and defiant on the surface, but desperately sad and hopeless behind closed doors; ‘I’m a living hall of mirrors’, she says mournfully, sifting through newspaper clippings, glowing reviews of her performances in Shakespeare and Ibsen tragedies; ‘I’m beautiful, grotesque, famous, grotesque, brilliant, grotesque. I’m a sad, needy clown’.
Eventually the worst comes to pass for Sonya. She loses Tommy to child protective services. Her time drying out at a religious institution could have easily veered into clichéd territory, but thankfully there is no Nurse Ratched-type adversary introduced or enlightening bond forged with a fellow patient. This part of the narrative serves more to establish the type of person she truly is when the drunken fog has lifted, and whether or not she has any real desire to get better. Is Sonya in the throws of addiction versus Sonya in recovery merely one and the same? - ‘was it the booze or will I be worse without it?’, as she says. We’re also reminded that, at least prior to this, she’s been an unreliable source on her own story. When Tommy is returned to her ‘a sombre little fellow’ she questions her rosé-tinted take on reality for the first time - ‘are my memories of him filtered through the lens of the red-rimmed, melancholic boozer’s eyes?’. She also now has the insidious David to contend with, a recovering alcoholic who has inserted himself into her life as an unofficial counsellor, but with questionable motives.
Her strict vegetarianism is often used to highlight the ironic neglect of her own flesh and blood. This might seem an easy reach at first, but it shows time and again just how distorted and self-serving her thinking has become. She chastises those around her for eating meat - ‘don’t you know the suffering we inflict on those poor innocent creatures’? - all the while assuring herself that the tiny Tommy, subsiding mostly on a diet of fish fingers, is simply ‘small for his age’.
Could the trauma of her own mother’s premature death be the root cause of Sonya’s suffering, and consequently, of that she inflicts on her own child? ‘Believe me, you’re nothing like her’, her father says when she floats the idea, but does he mean this in a positive or negative sense?
The writer’s take on inherited misery is introduced in Sonya’s therapy sessions - ‘all of these men were born to mothers like me’ - and by the end of the book it’s cemented, with Tommy showing some alarming signs that he’s a sociopath in the making. It’s a testament to the ultra-precise characterisation of both mother and son that a deep sympathy for them lingers well beyond the conclusion.
Bright Burning Things by Lisa Harding (published by Bloomsbury) is out now.