“Distressing and observant” – Bright Burning Things by Lisa Harding

Sonya, a RADA graduate, thrill-seeker and one-time actor, is now a single mother living back in Ireland on the dole; she’s estranged from her father and stepmother so it’s just her, her four-year-old son Tommy, and Herbie, their massive mutt. Sonya’s also frantically anxious, miserable away from the stage, and without any support network, and white wine is about all that can calm her down – except, of course, when it doesn’t. The book, then, opens with Sonya on a bender, Tommy bringing her cups of water, a near-miss with an oven-fire, and the neighbour across the way sticking her nose in exactly where Sonya doesn’t want it. Before long, lest the police and social services intervene, her dad’s at the door, Sonya’s packed away to a private rehab clinic, and Tommy’s future is looking even more uncertain.

This is an anxiety-inducing read: Harding conveys Sonya’s self-doubt, panic and self-justifying rages with such acuity it feels visceral. While the first, pre-rehab, section is a frenzied dash from disaster to disaster, centred on Sonya’s own perceptions, the later parts – when she’s got a little more perspective – show us more of Tommy’s reactions, and this portrayal of a defensive, wary pre-schooler is quieter, and all the more upsetting for it. On the periphery there’s also Sonya’s dad – taciturn, angry, burying his own past – and her stepmother, Lara, a threatening bogey(wo)man who’s shadowed Sonya’s life since she was eight years old; as well as exploring Sonya’s current life, the book also raises questions about past trauma (Lara’s, as well as Sonya’s and her dad’s). So it’s a novel about family life and secrets – not about digging out those secrets, because Harding avoids that sort of revelatory cliché, but about acknowledging that there are secrets, that families are messy, that nobody’s really entitled to cast that first stone.

Plot-wise, it’s not all that complex or surprising: looming disaster, intervention, the threat of relapse, and so on – and the figure of David, the sort-of love interest, too, feels pretty inevitable (bad decisions manifested as an overbearing man) – all mean that the helter-skelter narrative follows a familiar-enough groove. Sonya’s voice – seductive, self-aware, Shakespearean monologues mixed up with fights at the pizza place – is what pulls us through it all. It’s also funny; as messed up as Sonya is, it’s impossible not to fume at the judgemental strangers who yell at her for, well, pretty much everything she does. And just as Harding avoids revelatory epiphanies, she also avoids neat clean endings: just as the guys at the rehab facility have bounced in and out of it, over and over, we’re aware throughout that nothing is guaranteed for Sonya (or Tommy).

Any Cop?: A quick, distressing and observant read, if following the beats of the genre a little too closely at times; Rachel’s Holiday for a new generation.

 

Valerie O’Riordan

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