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Bottled Goods: Longlisted for Women's Prize for Fiction 2019 (Fairlight Moderns) Paperback – 11 Jul 2018
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`An assured debut which is part-absurdist, part-thriller, part-social realism. If you're looking for intrigue, psychological depth and the darkly comic in a book that can be read in one hour, this is for you.' - Republic of Consciousness Prize 2019 judges; `this stunning historical novella [...] is both tense and atmospheric' - Mslexia; `The prose is tight, witty, vivid and atmospheric [...] Every word on the page pulls its weight' - Litro; 'Sophie van Llewyn's stunning debut novella shows us there is no dystopian fiction as frightening as that which draws on history.' - Christina Dalcher, author of 'VOX'; 'A story to savour, to smile at, to rage against and to weep over.' - Zoe Gilbert, author of 'Folk'; Lucid and powerfully affecting.' - Helen Rye, winner of the Bath Flash Fiction Award; 'A masterful blend of the political and the personal, the magical and the mundane, the historical and the hyperbolic.' - Ingrid Jendrzejewski, editor-in-chief of FlashBack Fiction; 'Sophie van Llewyn has brought light into an era which cast a long shadow.' - Joanna Campbell, author; 'The uncertainties of life and love, and the insatiable quest for freedom - bottled neatly in a set of stories that captivate and enchant.' - Michelle Elvy, coordinator of New Zealand's Flash Fiction Day and Bath Flash Fiction Award judge
About the Author
Sophie van Llewyn was born in south-eastern Romania. She has published and won awards for her flash fiction and short stories across the UK, Europe and the States. Bottled Goods is Sophie's debut long fiction work.
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Van Llewyn combines magical realism elements with all-too-real scenes to portray the stifling oppression and poverty experienced under Ceausescu's regime in Romania. Alina, as her mother repeatedly reminds her, has married beneath herself but this allows us as readers to learn about ordinary lives as well as those of the former elite. The 'bottled goods' theme recurs throughout the novella both in the context of aspirations - bottles of imported perfumes or soda drinks are only available in the restricted Western shops - and emotionally - any dissent must be bottled up to avoid attracting security police attention. Bottling also occurs magically and I do encourage you to read the novella to discover this!
Bottled Goods has dark scenes of sexual assault and torture which, while brief, are distressing to read so be aware of this content. I loved the ever-present sense of menace which steadily grows after Liviu's brother defects from Romania. Despite having had no idea of his plans, Alina and Liviu find themselves effectively being punished in his stead and the psychological strain slowly begins to destroy their marriage. I empathised strongly with these characters. Van Llewyn's prose is rich with detail without having a single unnecessary word and I felt this novella, despite its unsettling moments of course, was an absolute joy to read.
The protagonist is a young woman named Alina whose wealthy family lost their land to the communist government before she was born. Her mother is an apparent zealot for the regime, although this may be her way of retaining control over her daughter who has a tendency to dream of fulfilling yearnings of her own. Alina’s aunt, Theresa, has influential connections through her marriage and uses these to help her niece when she can.
Alina marries Liviu against her mother’s wishes. For all her communist ideals, Mother continues to regard her new son-in-law as a peasant. Refusing to help the newly weds who have defied her, their early married life is made more difficult than it needed to be. Alina resents that she must take a low paid job as a teacher to enable her husband to finish college, something she was thereby unable to achieve.
What hopes the young couple may have had for decent careers, which would have made life a little easier, are shattered when Liviu’s brother defects. This action brings his wider family under scrutiny from officials tasked with ensuring all comrades adhere to party diktats. Liviu is called in for questioning and then reassigned to work in a remote and difficult location. When Alina overlooks a breach of protocol by one of her students she too suffers the close attention of party officials. The couple now live in fear of more serious punishment, putting their marriage under greater strain.
The portrait of life under such a controlling government is cogently enraging to read. Alina must also live with the fear of betrayal from colleagues and even family who would be rewarded for providing information. Alina understands that her mother is selfish and desires a compliant daughter who puts the mother’s needs and wishes before her own. She struggles to accept that any parent would sacrifice a child as punishment for daring to try for a better way of life that does not include them.
Alina turns to Theresa for help and is offered a solution that requires a step of faith. As with any advantage gleaned in this country it comes at a cost, including the weight of guilt.
This is impressive storytelling with fully three dimensional scenes packed into each short segment. The characters appear rounded and real with their varied traits and behaviours. Communist Romania is as much a character as any of its people. The story has depth and passion whilst retaining flow and an engaging tension.
Despite the frustration and despair I felt at Alina’s treatment this was an historically fascinating tale. The unusual structure was harnessed with skill and then worked superbly to build empathy. There are magical elements which could be taken at face value or accepted as metaphors that offer further details to consider.
Alina is presented as a far from perfect individual with her trials providing a foundation for portraying the realities of life under a closed, communist dictatorship. Written with flair and precision this is an immersive and compelling read.