Caught in the dazzle of addiction
Jane Clinton talks to Irish writer Lisa Harding about alcoholism and motherhood – and the ‘infuriating’ but loveable lead character in her latest novel
18 June, 2021 — By Jane Clinton
SONYA is like a Catherine Wheel, she burns brightly, intensely, but her life is out of control and veering towards disaster.
She is at once intoxicating and terrifying – the absolute best company on a night out but with her danger lurks. An actress, she has given up her promising career in London to return to Ireland. She has a young son – Tommy. She is not coping.
Sonya is an alcoholic and her erratic and wild behaviour is attracting concern.
Even her son, who initially seemed to enjoy the rollercoaster life, or at least the intense highs, is beginning to be less than enthusiastic when the inevitable intense lows cloud over.
We meet Sonya, Tommy and Herbie the dog at the beginning of the novel, Bright Burning Things, as they take off for the beach.
Sonya’s crashes into the sea leaving Tommy alone on the shore drawing condemnation from a woman nearby.
Sonya scoops up Tommy with Herbie and scurries to their car. She is driving away in her bra and pants. But she also seems to be driving away from the world and all its cruelties.
As high-octane openings to novels go it is at once captivating, exhilarating and utterly terrifying.
Bright Burning Things, by Irish writer Lisa Harding, has been described by the author Roddy Doyle as “infuriating, nerve-wracking and hugely enjoyable”.
And this is the rub: we both rail at Sonya and her repeated failings, yet still cannot help but love her.
For Harding, a playwright as well as a successful stage and television actress, alcohol was pervasive in her family.
Her brother is as she puts it “a serious alcoholic” and was aware and supportive of her tackling the subject in the book.
“He is very open and there’s no denial in his life about it,” she says from her home in Dublin.
“I’ve been very close to him our whole lives, watching him struggle and go in and out of these various rehabs. My research has been lived. I’m not an alcoholic myself. I think my life has been kind of saturated in booze and people with addictive form, so it’s always been with me, as well as a lot of colour and a lot of magic and chaos that goes with it.”
Writing the novel, she says, was “cathartic” but it was also intense.
“It’s so immersive and it is first-person present tense. It was like method writing.”
We see Sonya, a woman of heightened emotions who seems at odds with the world. She feels too much, life dazzles and burns that even a trip to the supermarket is a sensory overload.
She, Tommy and Herbie are in a bubble but the outside world is seeping in and seeing that all is not right. Things will have to change.
Bright Burning Things is a visceral and at times heartbreaking exploration of addiction and motherhood, drawing comparisons with the Booker-winning Shuggie Bain.
Harding’s own approach to motherhood for the novel mined the experience of her parents’ generation, when aged 20 “getting pregnant in Ireland – there were no options, no contraception. They were my template, even though that isn’t the story.”
Harding, who lived in London for many years, does not have children and is disarmingly honest about her experience.
“I was very frightened of being a mother. And I chose not to. I was aware of things that I had to sort out in myself and by the time I was probably emotionally ready I was too old.”
She only started writing “seriously” aged 40 and puts it down to a “confidence” issue.
Her award-winning first novel, Harvesting, about sex trafficking in Dublin has been optioned for film to be directed by Michael Lennox of hit TV show Derry Girls.
Bright Burning Things has also been optioned.
She started her third novel, set on “a college campus” with a psychological thriller edge, during the early days of the pandemic.
Despite her successes (Bright Burning Things has also been very well received), she admits she was “in brace position” prior to reviews appearing.
“I was worried. I just thought Sonya’s hyperdramatic, she’s hyper-saturated, she’s melodramatic and it kind of goes against the literary taste at the moment which I feel is very intellectual, quite cold and all about form.”
To cope with this anxiety she decided on preemptive action.
“I wrote my own worst review,” she says laughing. “And then I thought: ‘I’m prepared.’ But it didn’t happen.”
- Bright Burning Things. By Lisa Harding. Bloomsbury, £14.99