2022 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year, Author, Bloomsbury, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, Lisa Harding, literary fiction, Literary prizes, Publisher, Setting

‘Bright Burning Things’ by Lisa Harding

Fiction – paperback; Bloomsbury; 320 pages; 2021.

Novels with strong, distinctive voices are always winners for me — and so it proved with Lisa Harding’s Bright Burning Things, which has recently been shortlisted for the 2022 Kerry Group Novel of the Year Award.

A woman’s life unravelling

Told from the perspective of Sonya, a former stage actress now single mother with a young son, this tense, unflinching story puts us firmly in the mind of someone losing her grip on reality.

[…] Abruptly I sit, and just as abruptly I cry. This is all part of it: my ‘condition’, as diagnosed by Howard [a former boyfriend]. He said it was what made me such a great actress: extreme and electric. The moods crashed through me then, never really landing, never really taking hold, but since stopping acting and having Tommy, alone, and the tiredness and the feeling of being judged by the voices, and now the old ladies of the world, they have taken up permanent residence.

The first few chapters of this novel are told in a dizzying, confused voice, one that is paranoid, convinced that everyone is watching and judging, especially Mrs O’Malley the neighbour across the road. And her actions are just as erratic, whether that be driving her old car too fast, stripping down to her underwear to go swimming in the ocean, shoplifting food and wine from the supermarket, or burning the fish fingers she cooks for Tommy’s dinner.

Her mental distress is only eased by drinking alcohol, which, in turn, just makes her more confused and her behaviour more erratic. Sometimes she experiences extreme blackouts — and she knows this is not good when she has a young child to look after. But this brings on more anxiety, which only fuels her drinking. It is a vicious cycle.

An intervention

Her father, with whom she’s not had contact for two years (or so she says), intervenes and whisks her off to a rehabilitation facility run by nuns.

He gets out, opens my door, takes the bag out of the boot and leads the way. Where have you been, Dad? I’m being led to the sanitorium, the madhouse where they used to lock up wild women in this country not so long ago — when it was still a land of priests and patriarchy — women with hysteria, with desire, with too much of everything in their veins, women who incited and inflamed. Yup, that’s me! I almost start to skip. Where is my camera?

Here, under the care of counsellors and doctors and medication, she undergoes a 12-week programme of abstinence, but she pines for Tommy, who has been taken into care, and becomes increasingly obsessed about her dog because no one will tell her what has happened to him.

Eventually, when released, everyone is reunited, but it’s not smooth sailing. Tommy has developed an obsession with fire, and Sonya has to watch he doesn’t burn the house down. And while she has a better grip on reality (thanks to her therapy), she struggles to play her new role as a sane and alcohol-free mother.

This is going to be the hardest acting job ever. All the characters I have played up to now were able to give full vent to their passions and furies. My new character is called Ms Sanity, and Sanity has to hide her truth at all costs, Sanity has to smile and suppress, Sanity has to present a neatly packaged front to the world. My audience would no doubt be bored of Ms Sanity within minutes.

When she develops a romantic relationship with one of the counsellors who checks her progress, his home visits begin to blur the line between “doctor” and patient. And kind, considerate David turns out to be not so kind and not so considerate after all. His presence begins to feel oppressive and his behaviour coercive.

Unique voice

Bright Burning Things is a compelling read, because even though the story might feel familiar — an alcoholic, mentally distressed woman going off the rails — it’s the voice, confidential, strained and disbelieving, that gives this novel its unique twist.

It’s tense and immersive throughout, building towards a potentially terrifying climax, but there’s an undercurrent of wry humour to lessen the narrative’s weight. You’re never sure what’s going to happen next and whether anyone will step in to help the characters at the heart of this book. You worry for Sonya, but you worry more for young Tommy.

The author draws many parallels between acting on stage and acting in real life, and how certain people thrive on attention but only when it is on their terms. She also explores the pain and ecstasy of addiction and maternal love, letting us in on a deeply personal world that feels raw and intimate.

If you liked this, you might also like:

‘Sorrow and Bliss’ by Meg Mason: The story of a woman who struggles to maintain her sanity — and her marriage — in the face of an undiagnosed mental illness.

‘The Sound of My Voice’ by Ron Butlin: a successful executive at a biscuit factory masks the fact he is a high-functioning alcoholic who’s struggling to keep all the balls in the air.

This is my 3rd book for the 2022 Kerry Group Novel of the Year Award. I am trying to read the entire shortlist before the winner is announced on 1st June.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Harvill Secker, historical fiction, Ireland, Joseph O'Connor, literary fiction, London, Publisher, Setting

‘Ghost Light’ by Joseph O’Connor


Fiction – hardcover; Harvill Secker; 256 pages; 2010.

I’m not one for making predictions or backing horses, but if Joseph O’Connor’s Ghost Light doesn’t make the longlist for this year’s Booker Prize, I’ll eat my hat.

This is an accomplished novel that should firmly cement O’Connor in the canon of contemporary Irish literary fiction. Of course, he’s already achieved extraordinary success with Star of the Sea and its follow-up Redemption Falls, but Ghost Light, released earlier this month, feels as if he’s “arrived” in the sense that he can now take his rightful place alongside the likes of fellow countrymen Colm Toibin, John Banville, Sebastian Barry and the late (great) John McGahern.

Ghost Light charts the rise and fall of real-life Irish Catholic actress Maire O’Neill (1885-1952), who performed under the stage name Molly Allgood. She was engaged to playwright John Millington Synge, a Protestant 14 years her senior, at the time of his death to Hodgkin’s disease in 1909. Their relationship was frowned upon by pretty much everyone, including their families and Synge’s great friend William Butler Yeats, with whom he co-founded Dublin’s Abbey Theatre.

O’Connor takes pains in his “Acknowledgements and Caveat” to point out that while his novel features characters from real life, the story is a work of fiction. “The experiences and personalities of Molly and Synge differed from those of my characters in unaccountable ways,” he writes. “Most of the events in this book never happened at all. Certain biographers will want to beat me with a turf-shovel.”

Does it really matter that O’Connor has taken liberties with the truth? I think not. He has crafted an amazing story, from basic facts, and given life to a woman that history has sadly neglected.

We first meet Molly in London in 1952, where she resides in a lodging house, and as she makes her way across town towards an afternoon appointment at a BBC recording studio, we learn about her previous life in Dublin in 1908 when she was the star of the Abbey Theatre.

By jumping backwards and forwards in time in tune with Molly’s memory, we discover how she met Synge, became his lover and spent much of their relationship waiting for him to commit himself to her (it’s no spoiler to say he merely kept her hanging on for what appears to be no good reason) and we come to realise the direness of her present circumstances, so close to destitution that she is prepared to sell her most precious possession — a love letter from Synge — in exchange for a bottle of booze.

What I loved most about this book is Molly’s inner voice, which swings between pity and self-loathing, to a terribly wicked potty-mouthed sense of humour ripe with Dublin vernacular. Take this interior monologue as she looks at paintings in the National Portrait Gallery:

Heavens to Betsy, what an ugly old trout. Face like a bag of rusted spanners. Imagine, someone paid good money for that glower to be painted. More beauty in the door of a jakes, that’s the God’s honest truth. My Jesus Almighty, but there’s hope for us all, Molls. ‘The Duchess of Blandford’. Looks like Mussolini in a wig. Il Duce with udders. God help us.

But it’s her desperation, her poverty and her dependence on alcohol that make her story such an incredibly moving one. (In an exchange on Twitter, O’Connor’s agent, Carole Blake, told me that “Joe says he fell in love with her”.)

I came to the end of this book feeling as if I knew Molly personally, that I had witnessed her pain and her shame, her glorious success and her confusion at being passed over by lovers and theatre-goers alike. I wanted to put the book down and have a good old howl. And almost 10 days after finishing the novel I have spent my days thinking about Molly and her tragic life, always a good sign that I’ve read something meaningful and brilliant.

Finally, I’d like to add a caveat of my own: the story is told in the second person, which can take some getting used to, and O’Connor experiments with the novel’s form by including an entire chapter written as if it’s an act in a Synge play (which, in my view, is quite hilarious, seeing as it is a bit of a piss-take on Synge’s own tendency toward “Oirishness”).

But the book is so bursting with character that I think even those readers who favour traditional, straightforward narratives will find Ghost Light an entertaining and accessible read. Let’s just hope this year’s Booker judges feel the same way.

Author, Book review, Deirdre Madden, Faber and Faber, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘Molly Fox’s Birthday’ by Deirdre Madden


Fiction – paperback; Faber and Faber; 221 pages; 2009.

Deirdre Madden‘s Molly Fox’s Birthday has recently been shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction 2009.

I had mistakenly thought it was a story about a little girl’s birthday, but the title is deceptive: the Molly Fox named here is a thirty-something woman who never celebrates her birthday and what’s more we never get to meet her. Instead we come to learn of her complex personality through the eyes of her long-time friend, who narrates the story in a cool, understated manner.

This is one of those mellow, beguiling reads that sneaks up on you, worms its way into your conscience and bathes you in a kind of gentle light. I found it almost impossible to put down and read it at every opportunity: on the tube, in my lunch hour, at home curled up in bed. And when I got closer to the final pages I tried to draw it out because I simply didn’t want it to end.

And yet, if I am to explain what Molly Fox’s Birthday is about, I find it difficult to describe. There is no straightforward narrative. It’s written from the point of view of one woman, a successful playwright, recalling her relationship with Molly Fox, an actor regarded as “one of the finest of her generation” — how they met, worked together and became firm friends — and it effortlessly switches from the present to the past and back again, often within a matter of pages, in tune with the narrator’s memories.

The narrator also thinks about her friendship with Belfast-born Andrew, a now-famous art historian, whom she met at university, and her older brother, Tom, a Catholic priest.

And all this is done over the course of a couple of days while she stays in Molly’s house in Dublin — a small redbrick Victorian house with  “immense charm” — while Molly is away performing in New York. When she remembers that it is Molly’s birthday she contemplates much about her dear friend, including why she never celebrates her birthday and why she is so protective of her younger brother, an alcoholic prone to depression.

This is a book about friendship: how tough it can be to accept flaws and foibles; how our relationships can be plagued by petty jealousies and secrets; and how important it is to our lives.

But Molly Fox’s Birthday is also a book about acting: how we play certain roles at certain times of our lives and show different facets of our personality to different people.

It’s also about learning to accept the past to move into the future. It’s a wonderful, atmospheric book and it will be interesting to see whether it wins the Orange Prize when it is announced early next month.