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'Bright Burning Things': A woman confronts alcoholism, past trauma in Lisa Harding's new novel

·3 min read

There is always more than one side to a story. And somewhere, flitting among the many participants' views, is the truth. In "Bright Burning Things" (HarperVia, 336 pp., ★★★ out of four, out now), author Lisa Harding shines some light on how the truth can be dimmed by our own trauma and others' expectations.

Such is the case for former stage actress Sonya Moriarty, who lives in Dublin with her 4-year-old son, Tommy, and their dog, Herbie. Their solitary and, as Sonya sees it, sublime, life involves many mini-adventures and nesting at home in front of the TV.

Turns out, not everyone agrees. Sonya's father and her neighbor across the street don't see a single mother making good choices, but a single mother in over her head due to an unmanageable drinking problem.

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After she has several altercations and incidents in public, Sonya's father shows up to confront her about her drinking and subsequent blackouts. The two have a strained and distant relationship stemming from her mother's death when Sonya was only 8 years old. Her father's remarriage did nothing to assuage Sonya's feelings of abandonment, and Sonya's decision to become a stage actress further strained their relationship.

She receives an ultimatum: Go to rehab or lose Tommy.

Harding's narrative is clever in how it plays out. When we begin, Sonya is a fun-loving, free-spirited mother. But along the way, we see Sonya become more human, particularly when her choices often seem to be in opposition to the outcome she wants. Will she actually be able to get Tommy back? Or is she so committed to her side of the story that she will risk losing her son?

"Bright Burning Things," by Lisa Harding
"Bright Burning Things," by Lisa Harding

Sonya struggles to take rehab seriously while separated from Tommy, and to connect with those in rehab, who are kept out of the carefully constructed cocoon she has always used to buffer herself and her son from the outside world. She struggles to face the trauma she experienced long before she took her first drink. Ultimately, Sonya's struggle is to figure out who she really is.

Along the way, Sonya is introduced to characters and situations that both help and hinder her progress. But the only person who can really do either is Sonya herself. Can she reconcile the person she was when we first meet her with the person reflected in so many others' eyes?

Her questions soon beget our own. Where does one's own truth give way to the truths of those around us? Do we determine who we are based on our own stories or must we consider the stories of others? It is a struggle that not only Sonya must face, but ourselves. Because the truth lies somewhere between the two.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'Bright Burning Things': A woman confronts alcoholism, past trauma

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