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First Few Pages: Bright Burning Things by Lisa Harding

First Few Pages: Bright Burning Things by Lisa Harding

A rising international literary star makes her American debut with this visceral, tender, and brave portrait of addiction, recovery, and motherhood, as harrowing and intense as Shuggie Bain.

Sonya used to perform on stage. She attended glamorous parties, dated handsome men, rode in fast cars. But somewhere along the way, the stage lights Sonya lived for dimmed to black. In their absence, came darkness—blackouts, empty cupboards, hazy nights she could not remember.

Haunted by her failed career and lingering trauma from her childhood, Sonya fell deep into an alcoholic abyss. What kept her from losing herself completely was Tommy, her son. But her love for Tommy rivaled her love for the bottle. Addiction amplified her fear of losing her child; every maternal misstep compelled her to drink. Tommy’s precious life was in her shaky hands. 

Eventually Sonya was forced to make a choice. Give up drinking or lose Tommy—forever.

Bright Burning Things is an emotional tour-de-force—a devastating and nuanced look at an addict’s journey towards rehabilitation and redemption.


There she is, lethal and irresistible, my high-kicking sidekick, and there goes that minx of a song, “Impossibly Beautiful,” and there is the sky so high and the light so bright and the sand warm velvet beneath the soles of my bare feet, and here comes the rush, an intense feeling of connection with all that is right and good in this world: my son’s sticky hand in mine as he stares at the sky, my dog trotting alongside, his black coat glinting in the sunlight.

“Don’t look directly at the sun, sweetheart, it burns your eyes.”

“But Yaya, you do it too.”

I bend to kiss him on the forehead, over and over as he laughs and pretend-wrestles me away. We look like everyone else as we skip down 

Sandymount Strand; dogs and kids, a mark of normality. No man, but then that’s not unusual these days. Tommy breaks free and he careens like a drunk—no, that won’t do, push that one away—runs unsteadily toward the surf, the frothy tongues of water that lick the sand. “Go, Herbie, go—mind Tommy!” The dog bounds after him and the two of them frolic at the water’s edge and I feel wave after wave of delicious things, my body vibrating with them, fingertips electric, heat pulsing its way through me.

The fever builds and I find I’m stepping out of my trousers and pulling my T-shirt over my head, dropping them in a puddle at my feet before I sprint toward my boys. My imp is waving, beckoning me into the shimmering water. Hello, Elation, you spangly bitch. I’m in my bra and knickers, but that’s okay because it’s hot and others are in their swimsuits and my underwear could pass for a bikini, so this is fine this is fine this is fine. Herbie is barking wildly. He’d have been put down in a week’s time, they said, if I hadn’t taken him then. Who rescued who?—the thought rises as I am submerged, the cold a tingle, adding to all the other tingles of the day, and my head is under and it’s silky salty down here.

My body feels strong as I push through the surge of water, the sunlight refracted like so many tiny stars, until my lungs are burning, and my heart is thrumming in my throat. I turn on my back and float, staring directly at the concentration of light. When I close my eyes a carnival of colors and shapes explodes behind my lids. Oh, Mr. Sunshine’s working his magic all right! I crane my neck to see my boys, but there’s a stranger, bending down to talk to Tommy. A distorted version of the happy song of moments before burrows and grooves. Now the stranger is picking him up. Not okay. Strike at the sea with sharp, staccato strokes, fluid sloshing in my ears and mouth. As soon as my feet hit the shallows I sprint, pushing the body of water away as if it were mere air.

“It’s okay, it’s okay, sweetheart, I’m here now, I’m here,” I say, or I think I say, my voice warped and bouncing in my ears as I open my arms to gather him up.

“You really shouldn’t leave a little one alone like that,” the stranger says, an old woman who’s cradling Tommy too close. “Here,” and she reaches into her bag to hand me a towel. “Where are your clothes?”

I don’t like the aura of authority about this woman who still hasn’t let go of my son. Start to shake with anger and cold, purple patches breaking out on my arms and legs.

“It’s okay, Herbie,” I say as I pat the dog on the head.

“Oh, that poor creature belongs to you? I thought it was a stray.”

The woman’s voice sounds like a swarm of something biting and black, with wings. Static builds up inside my head, so I have to shake it.

“Are you all right, dear?” falls out of the woman’s mouth, and it stings.

“Jesus, I’m fine, perfectly fucking fine. Now just give me back my boy and we’ll be out of your way.”

The woman’s grip on Tommy tightens. “Perhaps you should dry yourself off first?”

I’m shaking with something else now and it’s rocking me deep inside. My voice is huge and swallowed and I’m scared of what might happen if I release it. Breathe: in, out, in, out.

The woman sucks in her cheeks, biting down on them, making her appear cadaverous, as if she might spirit Tommy away to another dimension. “Is there someone I can call?” Her voice a hag’s voice. I knock the phone out of her hand and grab my son from her arms, which are 

stick-thin with loose swathes of skin. I feel repulsed by this old woman: her proximity, her bossy intrusion into our happy, happy world.

The woman calmly bends to pick up her phone, which makes my reaction seem all the more extreme. Even when I can see myself like this from the outside, I still can’t stop the tornado whipping up through me: a “child thief,” a “kiddy twiddler,” a “dirty old bag,” “witch/bitch/crone/cunt” rip out of me as I run, a bawling Tommy clasped tight to my sopping bra, Herbie in step. Sprint to the car without stopping to pick my clothes up off the sand; people are staring—let them stare, they have nothing better to do. I throw Tommy in the back with Herbie—whose hair on his back is standing up, his Sid Vicious act—before I turn the key, which I left on the front right-hand tire (a trick Howard taught me, as I was forever losing my keys—good for something, the prick). Rev the engine and move away from the packed car park onto the congested road, my bare feet slipping on the pedals.

I put the heater on full, willing my old banger on, humming one of Tommy’s favorite tunes: Mary had a little lamb, little lamb, little lamb . . . Usually when I hum he sings, his cartoon-angel-like voice high and pure, but this time he just sticks his thumb in his mouth and 

sucks on it hard, as if worrying it might make the other thoughts go away. “Okay, little man?” I say in the rearview mirror and smile, giving him the thumbs-up. Nothing. Try again: “Okay, big man?” I stick my tongue out, roll it so the two sides touch off each other, which would normally make him chuckle, then roar with laughter, but he just squeezes his eyes shut and sucks more intently. “Okay, Mister Man, we’ll be home soon, and we can have some fishy fingers and jumping beans, okay?” I turn on the radio and Ravel’s Bolero blasts from the speakers.

As the car heats, fog forms on the windows. I draw a heart on the windscreen, keeping one hand on the steering wheel, and write “Mummy loves you” inside it. “Tommy, look.” I trace the letters with my fingertip, reading aloud. He opens his eyes, squinting, leans into Herbie, tries to hug him, arms only reaching a third of the way around his wide girth. The dog moans, a happy contented sound. “Good boy, Herbie, best boy.” His thick tail thumps on the tatty nylon seats. “My best boys, what would I do without you?” At the next traffic light there’s a man beside us who nods madly, winds his window down, and shouts: “It’s not every day. Lucky day. Lucky me. All right, darlin’?” I ignore him until the traffic lights shift to green, 

when I give him the finger as I speed off, tendrils of his voice hanging in the air: “Yup, I’d like that all right . . .” My adrenaline spikes as I realize he’s following me, or is he? “Not too long now,” I say to my two boys in the back, who are still cuddled into each other. I turn to the right, checking the mirror, and see him still, but then, no, it’s not him, he was just having his fun, harmless fun, it’s okay it’s okay it’s okay. My heartbeat slows down as I think of the promise waiting for me in the fridge. I’m glad I had the foresight to do that: chill it. It’s hot in the car now and it’s still warm outside.

Pulling up at the row of tiny terraced redbrick cottages, I pray that none of the snoops are lurking behind their half-slatted blinds. That Mrs. O’Malley, always butting in, dropping in homemade bread for “the little mite.” I know how to make Tommy happy with his orange food: his cornflakes and marmalade and baked beans and fish fingers and Cheddar cheese. Meat is dead animal flesh; I had to tell him that. Not the fish, though, I don’t tell him about the fish being hooked and whacked over the head. He won’t eat anything remotely resembling green—something to do with mold. He’s not undersized or anything, but then I don’t know any other four-year-olds. I cover myself as best I can with the skimpy towel and run up the tangled path to 

the front door, painted a shocking pink by my own hand, sploshed and botched. “Let yourselves in,” I shout as I tear into the one bedroom we all share. I rip off my wet underwear and open the top drawer, a jumble of socks, bras, and knickers, manage to locate a clean pair, before finding myself in the kitchen in just my pants in front of the fridge.

“Yaya, you’ve no clothes on.” Tommy’s voice is at the kitchen door. I hear his footsteps padding into the front room, the tip-tapping of Herbie accompanying him, then the sudden burst of noise as the TV blares. “Too loud,” I shout. He doesn’t lower the volume—maybe he didn’t hear me, or maybe he’s trying to annoy me. I twist the top off the bottle and am tempted to glug from the neck—need to cool, to soothe—but force myself to open a cupboard and get a glass. A measure of staying civilized, even with no one to witness me. Particularly with no one to witness me. This delicate white deserves a glass, the space to aerate. Pour, sip daintily, then throw my neck back and drink the whole thing in one go. Instantly I relax. How tense that woman made me feel, that man in the car—other people, fuck them—and I pour myself a second glass. A faint burning in my stomach, a 

mellow warmth spreading in my chest. By the third I find I can swallow, breathe, swallow, breathe. Like swimming.

I turn the grill on to 350 degrees, open the freezer to take out the fish fingers, and find there are none. I rummage through the cupboards, locate two cans of baked beans and one open can of dog food, a bit rank, but should be okay, Herbie eats anything. Stick the beans in the microwave and slip my frilly apron over my pants, an ironic moving-in gift from Tina, back when we shared a flat in London: “To my favorite Domestic Goddess!” I see my old pal, grinning, off her face pretty much all the time on anything at all. The beans are hissing and spitting, jumping out of their skins. The microwave is spattered with bright orange sauce. Later. I’ll clean that later.

“Anything good on?” I place the dog’s plate on the couch beside him and Tommy’s plate on his knees.

“Where are the fishies?”

“Don’t start, Tommy. Remember the starving children in Africa?” The moment I say it I wish I could force the words back inside. The kind of shit my father used to spew at me. “There was none left. We’ll get some tomorrow, okay?”

Tommy nods and lifts a spoon to his mouth.


“Too hot, darling?” I go to his plate and blow. “There now, see . . . Yummy?” Lift the spoon and make an airplane noise as I bring it toward his mouth, which is clamped shut. See my hand moving of its own accord, slamming the spoon against his lips and forcing them to open. The clang of metal as the spoon falls from my shaking hand onto the floor. Hyper imaginings, never a good sign. “Okay, not to worry, you’ll eat when you’re hungry.” I manage a jaunty wink before finding myself back in the kitchen, the bottle to my mouth, to hell with decorum, be still my banging heart.

The bottle emptied, a space opens up and my head feels liberated, as if I’ve just removed a too-tight elasticized band from my hair. Glide into the living room and flop down between my two boys, Tommy feeding Herbie the rest of his beans by hand: what a sweet, caring boy. I’ll make sure he eats later. Settle against the warmth of their bodies, feel mine softening, falling. Sometime later an acrid smell of burnt cheese on toast from yesterday fills the room. I sit up too fast, head banging, dots dancing in my eyes. Black smoke is billowing under the kitchen door. I move as if in a trance, groggy, but pulse 

racing—is this another of my night hallucinations? Open the grill door, reach in, grab the handle, flames are leaping, drop the pan onto the floor—fuck, be still my walloping head. Wrap my hand in a soggy tea towel and lift the pan into the sink. Under the tap, and whoosh, the flames burst and die, black charcoal in their place. I lined the grill with baking paper instead of tinfoil, stupid stupid stupid woman. I see my son in the doorway, eyes huge and glassy. “Okay, Tommy, everything’s all right now.”

He smiles, his mouth tight and tilted, an exact replica of his grandfather, and says, “Beeootiful. Hot and slinky like the sun.”

Herbie whines. My hand is hot and scalded.

“Water, Yaya.”

I smile at him, my little oracle, and hold my hand under the cold tap.

Every window will need to be opened. Every part of me is jangling. I feel myself crashing, falling into the pit. Should’ve known when I first saw her there on the beach, shimmering, irresistible, that this was the way it would go. Grab the full bottle, turn my back, undo the screw top with my teeth. Tell myself that what Tommy doesn’t see can’t hurt him.

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