by Sophie van Llewyn
Bottled Goods is a simple tale of life in the Socialist Republic of Romania during the late 1960s and ‘70s. Or is it? What starts out as the story of schoolgirl Alina growing up in Bucharest with her somewhat eccentric family morphs perplexingly into full-blown magical realism three-quarters of the way through, after which, elements become unexpectedly surreal.
Alina is a twentysomething school teacher when she and her husband Liviu find themselves of significant interest to Ceaușescu’s secret police following his brother’s defection to the West. To make matters worse, Alina attempts to protect one of her pupils spotted with a contraband magazine and is reported to the authorities for doing so. Suddenly the bad coffee and black-market apple strudels seem insignificant trifles when compared to being persona non grata with the regime, former-friends, neighbours and colleagues – and the situation isn’t alleviated by Alina’s self-centred, interfering mother, who has never approved of her daughter’s marriage to a peasant boy.
Bottled Goods is part of the Fairlight Moderns series, which aims to introduce readers to modern literary fiction from different parts of the world via an ever-expanding collection of multi-genre novellas. Printed in smaller format and with striking jacket covers created by Sara Wood and illustrated by Sam Kalda, these appealing little books are designed to be convenient travelling reads and will make ideal book club choices for those seeking contemporary themes combined with quality writing.
Sophie van Llewyn was born in south-eastern Romania but now lives in Germany. She has previously won awards for her flash fiction and short stories. In this, her “debut long fiction work”, she has created a chilling piece of absurdist fiction, which (often comically) depicts the depressing and troubled lives of those attempting to subsist under the constant watch of a distrustful authoritarian state.
“To my father and the heroes of the Romanian Revolution of 1989.”
Many thanks to Fairlight Books for providing an advance review copy of this title.
This sounds a great book. And it’s such a beautiful review. I always think it’s interesting to distinguish between authoritarian states because they all have their distinctive features. Stalin emerged as the leader of the Soviet Union on the basis of a “socialism in one country” argument, whilst Ceaușescu ran his unlucky country on the basis of “socialism in one family”- his wife was given prizes which made her unpopular too. It’s great to hear that the author made the transition from short stories & flash fiction successfully, because that type of journey must be hard to accomplish.
Many thanks, John. One thing I always find rewarding about reviewing books set in different countries and under various governments is that I constantly learn something new. My knowledge of 1970s Romania was pretty sparse prior to reading this novella but I’m now looking at all sorts of fascinating essays and articles about the regime and its people. You never quite know in how many directions you are likely to be taken when you first pick up a book.
That’s very true about books- they can spin you right round! My extremely limited knowledge of Romania stems from lectures I attended many years ago about life under what was termed ‘actually existing socialism.’ It was fascinating how the diverse countries had different systems and economic trajectories despite being part of the same bloc. The lecturer was brilliant because he never bluffed with what he knew- he was really familiar with the former Czechoslovakia and the dramatic Prague Spring, but didn’t know very much about Romania, so he always asked for clarification from a Romanian student on matters of detail about her country. Enjoy your adventures!
This sounds really interesting – I’ve not read much Romanian fiction, I should really read more. I wasn’t aware of the Fairlight Moderns imprint – thanks for putting it on my radar!
The series is very new – I only recently discovered them myself.
Paula, this one and the entire series sound like books I would treasure. I am taking note. In this case, I have not read any Romanian fiction. Also, love that cover with the kitty! Beautiful review!
Thank you, Jennifer. I will definitely read other books in the series. I must confess it was the cover that first drew me to this one! 🐱
Interesting review! I confess I would probably be more drawn to this if it didn’t have the magic realism element – although having said that, the cover illustration instantly made me think of The Master and Margarita, which is one of my favourite books and isn’t exactly down to earth, is it?? 🙂
Thanks Karen. I’m not particularly drawn to magical realism either but I did quite enjoy Bottled Goods. Yes, I know what you mean about the cover of TM&M. I’m ashamed to say it’s still sitting in my TBR pile, but it’s gradually making its way to the top! 😏
You had me at ‘magical realism’. I love books that start out one way and take a completely different turn halfway through. I took a look at Fairlight Moderns website and I really love the idea of reading contemporary fiction from other countries. It’s easy to get caught up in a North American/Northwestern European literary bubble. Adding this to my to-read shelf! 🙂
Thank you, Ashley. I agree, there are some wonderful books from other parts of world – just to add to our TBR mountains. I certainly hope to read more in the Fairlight Moderns series.
This book sounds perfect for me. I adore magical realism! Fairlight Moderns sound really fascinating. It’s a good way to branch out geographically with what we read. I used to track what countries the authors I read were from, but it got too depressing. I read far too many American and British authors. Perhaps this can help me out some.
I see that Fairlight Moderns provided you a copy for review; if you could pick any of their books to read next, which would it be?
You’re right, Jackie, there aren’t nearly enough books translated into English, but I think this situation is slowly improving. Mmm, which book, I wonder? Perhaps Travelling in the Dark by Emma Timpany, which is set in New Zealand (a country I would love to visit).