Bottled Goods first came to my attention when it was shortlisted for the 2019 Republic of Consciousness Prize, which has been set up to reward books published by small, independent publishers. Subsequently, it has been longlisted for the 2019 Women’s Prize for fiction.
The author Sophie van Llewyn was born in Romania and now lives in Germany. And this is her debut long fiction work.
The book had already garnered a lot of positive reviews. Wondering what the fuss was all about, and intrigued by the premise of flash fiction, I decided to try it out.
This is how the Novella-in-Flash is described on the author’s blog:
A novella-in-flash is a novella that consists of independent flash fictions (that is, self-contained stories ranging from 5 to 1,000 words), that function as ‘chapters.’ They are linked, forming a longer story. Think of them as brushstrokes, each of them a touch of colour in themselves — but all in all forming a ‘bigger picture’.
It’s a technique that has worked brilliantly for Bottled Goods.
The book is set in Bucharest in Romania in the 1970s when it was under Soviet rule. The central character is Alina, a teacher in a city school. Alina comes from a wealthy family, and her aunt (her mother’s sister) is married to a top government official, allowing her certain privileges.
Here is how it opens…
When Aunt Theresa calls, I’m doing my homework on the History of Socialism.
‘Alina? Is your mother at home?’ she asks.
‘No,’ I say. ‘She’s working the late shift this week. She won’t be home until eight.’
‘Good. I’ll pick you up in half an hour. Wear something black and sturdy shoes.’ And she hangs up before I have the chance to argue.
From the outset it is clear that the relationship between mother and aunt are strained. However, Alina gets along very well with her aunt and many a time turns to her for help.
Meanwhile, Alina goes on to marry Liviu, a man below her when it comes to class. It’s something that Alina’s mother greatly resents and provides the first hint of a discord between mother and daughter.
I mentioned at the beginning that Alina is a central character in these flash fictions, but the same could also be said about the city of Bucharest.
Little by little the terrors of living under Soviet rule become apparent to us – how it has created an environment of distrust, suspicion and aloofness. Ratting out on your neighbours and acquaintances to the authorities is common, perpetuating a constant state of fear and anxiety.
A certain incident in the school involving a couple of girls also puts the spotlight on Alina, and consequently she begins to get hounded by the authorities on this.
Things reach such a head that it begins to take a toll on Alina and Liviu’s marriage. To save it, they begin to hatch a plan of escaping Bucharest altogether.
There is one section related to this that is particularly harrowing – when both are detained at the Border by the Soviet authorities.
‘No! No! I wasn’t praying! I was just tired.’
The man grinds his teeth, then pushes me into the metal table. It screeches as I collide with it. There’s a sharp pain in my hip.
‘Body search,’ he says.
He turns me around, pushes me harder into the table with his knee. Its corner pierces my stomach. I wail. He catches the nape of my neck, squeezes hard. ‘Shut up!’
His hands move up and down my body, tear my shirt open. The callused tips of his fingers are on my waist, on my breasts, on my legs. He rips my nylon pantyhose.
‘You’re tired, hey? I’ll show you tired!’
Alina does have Aunt Theresa to turn to. Of course Alina is banking on her aunt’s elevated position to help her in her troubles, but the aunt is also a great believer in superstitions, magic and Romanian folklore preferring to rely on them when attempting to advise Alina.
You’d think that the rain has come, a fearful storm, if you listened to the claps of the hands, the snap of fingers, the wooden spoons drumming into cauldrons, but the dust, this dry dust rises to my thighs, barely licking my belly, an indecent lover aroused by the fact that the entire village is watching us, singing:
Vino de na uda-
And they sing faster, faster, faster, and my feet are spinning, and I have no power over them as I leap and jump…
Besides the relationship between Alina and Liviu, the other central focus of the novel is Alina’s relationship with her mother.
It’s a difficult relationship that causes great turmoil to Alina. The mother jumps at whatever chance she gets to berate Alina, and yet cannot do without her company. As the novel progresses, certain events develop which set Alina completely against her mother. And yet, when she decides to deal with the situation in a certain way, she is racked by feelings of tremendous guilt.
Will Alina and Liviu’s relationship survive these trials and tribulations? Will Alina and her mother make amends?
Bottled Goods is a wonderful story told in a unique style. The flash fiction format works very well and the author has used this medium to tell her tale in myriad ways. Sometimes, the narrative is in the first person – told by Alina, in other pieces the tale is told in the third person. Some other flash pieces comprise diary entries, lists, tables and Romanian folklore making for a wonderful reading experience.
The impact of folklore in the lives of Rumanian people is also dominant in the novel. Romanians are great believers – the older generation especially – in superstitions, and rituals, and even in the mysterious figure called Saint Friday.
There are a dozen of them in the clearing, ghostly silhouettes in their white skirts and shirts, with their embroidered vests and necklaces made of golden coins, or at least so it seems from the bush where Alina is hiding.
Forgotten are their dances, the hops, the swings in their hips, the circles they draw with their toes, their twirls and whirls. They gather in a circle and begin spinning, faster, faster, faster, until their very contours fade and the clearing seems an impressionistic picture of itself with the ghostly essence of the Sanziene slipping from them and imbibing the woods, the grass, the creek.
This suffuses the novel with an enchanting, fairy-tale like feel. In fact, in a major plot development, elements of magical realism are introduced but because of the force of the narrative and doses of folklore already sprinkled upon us earlier, it does not seem jarring, in fact it becomes quite believable.
In a way, all of this – the folklore, the magic realism – in their own way help in blunting the horror of Communism and Soviet rule, which probably in a straightforward narrative would have been hard to digest.