Review: Bright Burning Things by Lisa Harding (2021)

Bright Burning Things by Lisa Harding


Being Tommy’s mother is too much for Sonya.

Too much love, too much fear, too much longing for the cool wine she gulps from the bottle each night. Because Sonya is burning the fish fingers, and driving too fast, and swimming too far from the shore, and Tommy’s life is in her hands.

Once there was the thrill of a London stage, a glowing acting career, fast cars, handsome men. But now there are blackouts and bare cupboards, and her estranged father showing up uninvited. There is Mrs O’Malley spying from across the road. There is the risk of losing Tommy – forever.


I am very grateful to Laura Meyer at Bloomsbury for sending me a proof copy of this book. In a month in which I’d already read The Push, Call Me Mummy and Little Bandaged Days, Bright Burning Things could not have been more thematically appropriate, and like those books, it gripped me tight in its twisted claws.

I am not going to be able to write a long review of this book, for two reasons. The first is that I don’t want to give away too much of the plot. In itself, the story is quite straightforward – an alcoholic mother goes into rehab and returns home – but there is so much more to this book. Every page is stuffed full of tension and small, horrifying moments. It is the sort of book where you reach the end of a chapter and realise you’ve been holding your breath. The structure is surprising, in that the ‘rock bottom’ moment seems to occur earlier than you might expect, but Harding is doing something more with this book than just a ‘road to recovery’ story, and the narrative arc never plays out in a predictable way.

The second reason for keeping this review short is that I haven’t sorted through my feelings properly yet. I have a personal connection with this book, knowing and loving someone who is in recovery, and parts of this book felt so raw that I am not sure I want to share my full emotions here. It is a testament to Harding’s skill that it resonated so deeply. Sonya is such a complex, fascinating character – even though the story is told in the first person, I still felt as if I couldn’t quite get to the core of her, and I wonder if this is because she doesn’t even know herself fully. Her impulsive, reckless instincts take over often and sometimes in quite terrifying ways, and it was an oddly unnerving experience to be inside the mind of a protagonist I didn’t trust. And Tommy – oh Tommy! The depth of emotion I felt for him as I read was almost too real. There are hints and lines within this book that suggest that in some ways this is more his story than his mother’s. My heart broke for him so many times.

As for the end of the book – all I will say is that is one of those stories where you immediately have to find someone else who has read it so that you can compare notes (thanks Tilly!) – I am offering now to be on hand for anyone who needs an Oh My God moment upon finishing this fiercely uncompromising novel. If you follow my blog with any regularity (thank you, both of you) you’ll know that I love an unsettling read, and this book delivers that feeling in spades. I was physically uncomfortable at points, wanting to look away but unable to put it down. Bright Burning Things had a massive impact on me, and I will be thinking about it for a long time.

Bright Burning Things by Lisa Harding is published by Bloomsbury and is available to purchase here.


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