Bottled Goods by Sophie van Llewyn
Published by Fairlight Books, 2018
My rating: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Set in 1970s communist Romania, Bottled Goods is a novella-in-flash, chronicling Alina’s attempts to escape her homeland after she and her husband become persons of interest to the secret police. This unique structure, in which every chapter could theoretically stand on its own, is a clever and effective way to portray the idea that our lives are a tapestry of individual moments; vignettes that add up to form a bigger picture. The constant shifts in narrative style, from first to third person, and from letters to lists, etc., made for a unique and memorable reading experience that also reflected the erratic interruption to normality that became commonplace at this tumultuous time.
For the most part, the book captures the kind of stifling oppression that dictated people’s everyday lives, and the culture of fear and betrayal this engendered, with hardboiled realism. There are, however, moments of something decidedly more surreal, particularly in the book’s final third. These dalliances with the otherworldly will likely alienate some readers, but in this particular instance, I thought it worked. The glimpses of magical realism served up some striking imagery, and acted as a mirror for the strong folkloric heritage of Romania. This, to me, introduced the notion of drawing on one’s past, and holding onto wonder in the face of darkness and tyranny.
Getting back to the plot itself, there were moments of genuine tension and claustrophobic discomfort, the brutality of the regime deftly captured without ever becoming gratuitous. The final scene was striking and thought-provoking; one that begs discussion with fellow readers. As a heroine, I enjoyed following Alina’s perspective. Not only does she show emotional growth throughout the narrative arc, but she is realistically flawed, definitely not immune to the brand of cruelty that can arise in the struggle for self-preservation in times of corruption.
Sophie van Llewyn’s prose feels largely understated, but there’s deceptive nuance, and some wonderful passages that had me re-reading just to soak in the beauty: ‘There’s something in the way hope creeps up behind our backs and presses its palms against our eyes, leaving us smiling, but blind to the future. And we are both reluctant to speak its name, for fear that it might vanish. There’s something in the way we hold each other at night, like shipwrecked passengers, like that summer when the sea was licking at our toes, like the first time we met. There’s something in the way we say, We will, We will, We will, ringing in our ears like music.’
An altogether singular and engaging reading experience, this had been on my radar for a while, but I’m thrilled its longlisting for the Women’s Prize pushed me to finally pick it up. It’s heartening to see a unique piece of literature from a small press recognised by a major prize in this way.
You can pick up a copy of Bottled Goods from Book Depository by clicking here.