Actress – Anne Enright

Some years ago I had read Anne Enright’s The Forgotten Waltz and was quite bowled over by it. The premise of the book was a theme done to death a countless times – the examination of an extra-marital affair. But Enright with her smart and spiky writing transformed it into something special. Thus, the release of her new novel Actress made me quite eager to savour her writing once more.

In Actress, our narrator is Norah FitzMaurice, now a middle-aged woman, and a writer who has been married for many years with kids. When the novel opens, her mother Katherine O’Dell – the famous actress – has been dead for some years and Norah begins to reminisce about their relationship, her ascent as a movie star, followed by her descent into madness.

In a way Norah is writing about her mother, a fictionalized biography if you will, and it is addressed to her husband, the ‘you’ in the narrative.

The first chapter begins with a snapshot of Katherine and ends with her shooting a well-known producer Boyd O’ Neil in the leg after which she is committed to an asylum.

People ask me, ‘What was she like?’ and I try to figure out if they mean as a normal person: what was she like as a mother, or what she was like an actress – we did not use the word star. Mostly though, they mean what was she like before she went crazy, as their own mother might turn overnight, like a bottle of milk left out of the fridge. Or they might, themselves, be secretly askew.

Gradually in the subsequent chapters, Katherine’s personality and life is revealed to us in layers.

Katherine is attracted to the stage at a young very age influenced by her father who is a small time actor at the time. Katherine, however, is destined for bigger things. These are days just after the war and she rises to stardom in Ireland led by her stellar performance as a nurse in a war movie that enamours audiences. Thereafter, a stint in Hollywood and all the trappings of glamour follow. It means that Katherine’s home is often frequented by men and admirers, which carries on even when her daughter is born.

Katherine does not reveal the identity of Norah’s dad, and Norah often wonders why although she imagines her father to be some sort of a hero.

I woke up one spring morning with a sudden urge to discover my DNA before I tried to pass it along. This was the missing thing. This was the rope I needed to haul my baby out of the universe and into my body. I needed to find out who I ‘was’.

Katherine, meanwhile, finds herself pandering to the men in the industry for quality roles and this in many ways gradually begins to take a toll on her mental health. For Norah, her mother’s fame and company of men bring another set of problems – unwelcome sexual advances that Norah has to grapple with.

But the book is not all about Katherine. We learn something of Norah’s life as well – the revolution in Dublin in the 70s, her own sexual awakening and her subsequent marriage. Norah goes on to build a life different from Katherine’s. In a way, she opts for a more conventional life centred around marriage and motherhood in stark contrast to Katherine’s bohemian existence.

While Katherine does enjoy the sweet fruits of success, it does not last long – a bitter truth that she struggles to accept. Actress, then, is a beautifully written novel that explores fame and the price one has to pay for it.

The nuances of the connection between Katherine and Norah is sensitively evoked – despite many challenges, mother and daughter share a deep bond.

Among the images of my mother that exist online is a black-and-white photograph of me, watching her from the wings. I am four or five years of age and sitting on a stool, in a little matinee coat and a bowl haircut. Beyond me, Katherine O’Dell performs to the unseen crowd. She is dressed in a glittering dark gown, you can not see the edges of her or the shape her figure makes, just the slice of cheekbone, the line of her chin. Her hands are uplifted.

Enright does not give too much weight to plot, and she also chooses not to tell her story in a linear fashion. Rather, the book is a more like a meditation on a mother-daughter relationship and their contrasting personalities. As usual, Enright’s writing is smart and suffused with enough wisdom and perception to bring out something new in the tale.

Overall, the novel has a very reflective feel to it, which in a way makes sense. After all, the narrator is also an author because writing about her mother gives her the time to dwell on the past and try to understand her mother more deeply in a way that will enable her to convey it all in her book.

I have read two Enrights now – Actress and The Forgotten Waltz – the latter examined an extramarital affair against the backdrop of the financial crisis in Ireland. Although Actress was excellent, I still much preferred The Forgotten Waltz where Enright’s writing was simply brilliant.

Sudden Traveller – Sarah Hall

Sarah Hall writes exquisitely. Of this I was convinced when I first feasted on her novel Haweswater, a passionate love story set in the Lake District, which also examines the impact of dam building and consequent displacement of the people in the valley. Interestingly enough, the only other novel I read since then is her last one, The Wolf Border – a novel which I thought was good but not great, although I do recall some bits of it simply because the central premise was so original.

When it comes to the short stories though, Sarah Halls’ writing takes on a whole new level. She has now released a total of three collections – The Beautiful Indifference, Madame Zero, and now Sudden Traveller. All are miniature works of art.

Faber & Faber Hardback Edition
The front cover image is from ‘Mother and Daughter’, 1913 by Egon Schiele

Sudden Traveller is a slim book at 124 pages and comprises seven stories.

The first story ‘M’ has shades of ‘Mrs Fox’, of her earlier collection Madame Zero. In ‘M’, the protagonist is a woman and a lawyer who decides to do pro bono work for a shelter. This is a shelter for women – beaten down, abused, and out of luck. Her efforts are in vain though, as the shelter is eventually demolished.

But while this avenue shuts down, another one opens up, as the central character undergoes a physical transformation.  

The last decision of life, and the monetary drop, a first rush, like the waterfall’s crest, the brink of climax. For that second, such kinetic beauty, trust in nothingness. Then – a crack behind her, huge and dull and viscose, as the wings extend, unfurl and are filled, begin her flight. Suddenly, the city is far below, turning slowly in relied, roadways, estates and parks, contoured and furrowed and rapidly passing, a new landscape, a map of the hunt.

She becomes a mythical creature at night who can fly. And she sets about providing relief to the women who have been wronged.

Such a raucous call. There are so many – she could not have known before. And she cannot find them all. She seeks first the ones who transmit loudest, smell strongest, those who cannot hide and for whom it will be worst. Girls. The girl given animal tranquillisers, shared by seven of them, a lottery of seed inside.

But it doesn’t stop there. Earlier, only concerning herself with rescuing the women, she now branches out into punishing the men responsible for their sorry plight. In other words, she becomes an avenger of sorts. This is vintage Hall with all her trademark themes of feminism, and transformation.

After the visceral quality of the first story, the second one ‘The Woman the Book Read’ is mellower but no less beautifully penned. It begins hauntingly enough…

Ara. The name was unusual; he wouldn’t have recognized her otherwise. If she’d walked past him in the street, even if she’d been sitting opposite him in the café and he’d had time to study her, he probably wouldn’t have guessed.

Our male protagonist is in a beach town in the Middle East. One day, while in the midst of discussing business with a colleague, he hears the name Ara being called out. The invocation of this name brings back a flood of memories and transports him into his past.

We learn that Ara was the daughter of the woman he was involved with then. At the time, Ara was a child and the two develop a bond, which over the years fades away. In the present, Ara is now a grown woman who may or may not remember the man her mother was in a relationship with all those years ago.

Relationships of adults with children is a dominant theme in the third story too called ‘The Grotesques’. Here the central focus is a mother-daughter relationship. It’s 30-year old Dilly’s birthday and her overbearing mother, who is hosting a family get-together for Dilly, sends her out to run a few errands.

Dilly, meanwhile, is having a miserable day. She comes across a cruel prank played on a homeless man, is caught in the rain – wet and wretched by the time she reaches home, and is pining for a hot scone at her own party.

In ‘The Grotesques’, Hall has brilliantly conveyed the sense of claustrophobia in close family settings. Dilly’s mother is outspoken, at the centre of things, and her dominating personality confines Dilly to the sidelines.

Mummy could change a story or revise history with astonishing audacity, and seemed to instantly believe the new version.

Dilly is awkward and introverted as compared to her more accomplished siblings, and this puts her at odds with her mother – the two are as different as chalk and cheese.

Vengeance again is the central theme of the story ‘Who Pays?’, a story set in a Turkish forest with a very fairytale feel to it.

Who sees? Who pays? Always the women.

Sex and eroticism is an element that is vital to Hall’s writing. In ‘Orton’, an elderly woman with a heart disease, and fitted with technology, decides to visit a place in the moors called Orton. It is the scene of a previous sexual encounter with a man in her youth, before she married. Although purely a physical contact, it is a memory that is still vivid in her mind, enough for the woman to want to revisit the place.

Hall’s descriptions of the moors are gorgeous….

The moor hadn’t changed. The grass was restless, bleached and occasionally bright auburn when the sun lit it. Long walls ran upwards towards the fells, and the cleaved limestone pavements sat pale and dull on the slopes. Wind-leant trees, peat gullies, flocks of heather and the occasional darting thing. Under the clouds, great dark shadows moved across the hills.  

The title story ‘Sudden Traveller’, which to me is the highlight of the collection, is a beautiful meditation on death, loss and grief. It is also a piece in which she has expertly juxtaposed birth (of the protagonist’s child) with death (of the protagonist’s mother).

One can’t help but feel if there is a touch of the personal here. Hall gave birth to her child around the same time that her mother died.

Not surprisingly, the opening is a cracker…

You breastfeed the baby in the car, while your father and brother work in the cemetery. They are clearing the drains of leaves and silt, so your mother can be buried.

We learn of the mother’s illness, the endless hospital visits and waiting in her final days and the final act of burial. The grief and the coping involved. Against this, we are given a glimpse of the early days of motherhood: a happy one, but challenging nevertheless…

You are so tired there are moments you are not sure if you are awake any more. It feels like those early newborn days, the fugue state of new motherhood, when the baby was in a separate plastic cot at your bedside.

It’s not all gloom though. Rays of hope shine through, as does the prospect of picking up your life and starting again.

Nothing is unchanging. Rain that seems unstoppable, that seems impossible to see through, that keeps coming down, obscuring the world, washing away time, will end. Like everything else, it is only passing spirit.

And then you know how it will be. Breaking cloud, sky with discernible colour, fantastic-seeming sunlight. The rain will lift. The river will recede.

Overall, Sudden Traveller is a fascinating collection of stories that explores the themes of feminism, of what it is to be a woman, metamorphosis, and motherhood.

The collection is aptly titled with multiple meanings that convey not only physical travel but also journeys of the mind. It could either be harking back to the past or staring into an unknowable future. A lot of the characters in these stories witness a big change or are thrust into situations suddenly and are compelled to survive and make best of the situation. 

This rain is not helping: savage, unrelenting, incanting, strange even for here, making it hard to see anything clearly or think clearly. What you sense is mutability, the selves within the self. The terror of being taken, ahead, into sheer darkness. What is coming? Not just this lesson of a dying mother. But travel — You can do no more than intuit. You suspect your dreams are communicating far more destruction than you have interpreted, and in this you are correct. The future is a window that cannot be opened until it is opened.

Sarah Hall’s voice is unique and utterly captivating. There is a fierce, sensual quality to her writing that is entirely her own. She excels at lush descriptions and creating arresting images. It also explains why her short stories are so much better than the longer novels – her razor sharp sentences and spare, lyrical, staccato like prose comes across more vividly in the shorter form.

In one of her interviews with Guardian, a few years ago, here’s what Hall had to say on writing short stories…

“You’re required to fit much more in. It’s the world-on-the-head-of-a-pin thing. It was excellent discipline for me, the baggy, sloppy novelist, to think about form and plot.”

Here’s a quote in another equally interesting interview with Guardian (after the publication of the rather wonderful collection Madame Zero)…

“I do like short stories to be a powerful distilling. It is a place for dark psychology and a potent literary dosage. When I start out it usually stems from a thought, or something I heard in the news that gives me a shape. I like reading stories that give you a huge wallop, one you don’t see on the surface.”

In a nutshell, Sarah Hall’s short stories are rich, flavourful, and meant to be savoured slowly.

Childhood, Youth, Dependency – Tove Ditlevsen (tr. Tiina Nunnally & Michael Favala Goldman)

Tove Ditlevsen was reputed to be a renowned literary figure in Denmark with many poetry collections and novels to her credit.

But before I read The Copenhagen Trilogy, I had no clue about her existence let alone her impressive body of work.

Thanks to the internet and Twitter, I became aware of these incredible set of memoirs when Penguin Modern Classics reissued them last month. It is safe to say that they will easily find a place in my Best of the Year list.

Copenhagen Trilogy 1

The Copenhagen Trilogy is a collection of Ditlevsen’s memoirs; the first, second and third books are titled, Childhood, Youth and Dependency respectively.

In Childhood, Tove is living with her parents and her elder brother Edvin in Vesterbro, a working class neighbourhood in Copenhagen.

The family exists on the fringes of poverty, a fact further exacerbated by the father being in and out of jobs and her mother not holding on to one either.

Tove attends school but in essence is a lonely child believing herself to be a misfit in the environment in which she belongs.

The one thing that motivates her is her passion for writing poetry.

Tove, meanwhile, has a difficult and complicated relationship with her mother. She thinks it is exhausting to not only gauge but also pander to her mother’s moods.

When hope had been crushed like that, my mother would get dressed with violent and irritated movements, as if every piece of clothing were an insult to her. I had to get dressed too, and the world was cold and dangerous and ominous because my mother’s dark anger always ended in her slapping my face or pushing me against the stove. She was foreign and strange, and I thought that I had been exchanged at birth and she wasn’t my mother at all.

What’s more, her father does not really understand Tove’s love for poetry either because this is how he responds when she takes the courage to voice her dream:

‘Don’t be a fool! A girl can’t be a poet.’

Tove’s father is a socialist who is often unemployed, something that the mother always resents. The parents, however, have greater expectations from Edvin.

Besides finding solace in poetry, Tove increasingly longs to escape her confined childhood. She is waiting to turn eighteen and move away from her parents’ home.

Childhood is long and narrow like a coffin, and you can’t get out of it on your own.

In such an environment, Tove manages to befriend Ruth, a red haired girl, who is extroverted and daring, a sharp contrast to Tove’s personality. In the dynamics of that relationship, Tove is clearly in Ruth’s shadow.

Meanwhile, hope begins to glimmer when one day Edvin demands to read Tove’s poetry. Suitably impressed (even though he derided it previously in the same manner as the mother), he offers to pass it on to his friend Thorvald who can give her pointers on how to get those poems published.

It’s a big chance for Tove, a big opportunity for her dreams – of getting published – to come true.

That in a nutshell is the essence of Childhood, the first installment in The Copenhagen Trilogy.

Two immediate striking features are apparent – the voice of the narrator (Tove herself), and the language.

Tove’s voice is frank, fresh and distinct, and way she chooses to express herself comes across in the writing which is lyrical and sublime.

Although the overall tone of Childhood is gloomy, the gorgeous quality of the prose takes it up a notch making the reading experience utterly compelling – it was like being immersed in a gothic fairy tale.

If there is a sense of melancholy pervading Childhood, there is a shift of tone in the next book in the trilogy. Youth is more lighthearted peppered with moments of comedy.

In Youth, Tove has discarded the skin of her childhood behind. She must now venture into the big world and find a job to support herself and contribute to her family. It’s a prospect that terrifies her and paradoxically makes her yearn for her childhood.

The opening lines set the tone for what is to follow…

I was at my first job for only one day. I left home at seven-thirty in order to be there in plenty of time, ‘because you should try especially hard in the beginning’, said my mother, who had never made it past the beginning at the places where she’d worked in her youth.

In Youth, then Tove finds herself wading through a series of dull, meaningless jobs, which heighten her sense of boredom, and yet provide the means to maintain an independent existence. Eventually, once she turns eighteen, she immediately takes the step to leave her parents’ house, and find lodgings for herself.

One of her ladies is a Nazi sympathizer who tries to enlist Tove in various activities, which she manages to dodge. There is also the fear of the Second World War looming large. Indeed, Tove casually juxtaposes the broader canvas of these unsettling developments with what is happening in her own life…

The next day I start my job at the Currency Exchange typing pool and Hitler invades Austria.

Tove is also now dating and there is one comic set piece where she attempts to have sex for the first time with her boyfriend. Her friends think it’s shocking that she hasn’t already taken that step.

There are other spells of playfulness too when she enrolls for a few sessions in drama school, or when she is composing love songs for one of her employers.

In the final section, after a couple of disappointing attempts, Tove finally manages to get a poem published in a literary journal called ‘Wild Wheat’, edited by Viggo Moller, who goes on to become the first of her four husbands.

This finally paves the way for her dreams to materialize, as her first poetry collection manages to find a publisher.

We then move on to the final book in the trilogy, Dependency. There is once again a shift in tone as the writing gets more intense, feverish and terrifying. This book addresses some difficult times in Tove’s life making you wonder whether her youth – working in those dull jobs as an independent woman – wasn’t actually her best.

It addresses dependency in its many forms – marriage and drug addiction.  Interestingly, the Danish novel was called Gift, which in the original language means both married and poison.

In Dependency, Tove is now an established author but her marriage to Moller is beset with problems. There are compatibility issues thanks largely to the big age gap between the two (Moller is old enough to be her father).

Tove finds some stability in her second marriage and goes on to have a daughter with her husband. However, the marriage is not without its share of problems, and there is one unsettling but riveting set piece where Tove is hell bent on terminating her second pregnancy and is on the hunt to find a doctor willing to perform an abortion.

Somewhere along the way, Tove falls prey to the dangerous allure of drugs notably Demerol and Methadone. These developments are entwined with a disastrous marriage to her third husband – a weird quack responsible for her addiction – and her debilitating struggle to break free from this ordeal.

These sections are quite harrowing and there is a creeping feeling of dread and foreboding as the book progresses. Indeed, for Tove, the drugs are an escape from a reality she can’t cope with, or a balm for the gnawing feeling of emptiness inside.

It is only when she is writing her novels, poems or short stories that she feels truly alive. When she is not writing, this is how she feels…

I have a huge void inside me that nothing can fill. It feels like everything is going into me but nothing is coming out again.

The title Dependency is an apt one for this volume. The reference to addiction is the obvious one. But the book also explores how Tove increasingly depends upon marriage to support her and many of her decisions. This despite the fact she was an independent woman in her youth. For instance, her marriage to Moller is influenced more by her mother’s insistence that she be supported by her husband rather than work herself. Even when married to her second husband Ebbe, the decision to abort the second child is more out of a fear of their marriage ending. And yet, in all of her three marriages, which are detailed here, it is Tove who took the decision to end the union.

There is a glint of hope when the novel ends and the overall trilogy concludes – a sense that she is on the path to recovery even if that path is anything but smooth.

I was rescued from my years of addiction, but ever since, the shadow of the old longing still returns faintly if I have to have a blood test, or if I pass a pharmacy window. It will never disappear completely as long as I live.

The Copenhagen Trilogy then is a wonderful piece of literature, one of those works where the sheer force and beauty of Ditlevsen’s writing makes various elements and emotions in the books – bleakness, comedy, terror, dread – ultimately riveting, immersive and thoroughly absorbing.

Copenhagen Trilogy 2


You Would Have Missed Me – Birgit Vanderbeke (tr. by Jamie Bulloch)

You Would Have Missed Me is the second book in Peirene Press’ 2019 series ‘There Be Monsters.’ It’s also the first time they are publishing another book of the same author – Birgit Vanderbeke’s The Mussel Feast was published in 2014 to critical acclaim and was considered for many prizes. And I am happy to sat this novella was another strong offering not only from the author but also from Peirene.

You Would Have Missed Me

You Would Have Missed Me takes place in a single day and our narrator is a little girl, who has turned seven. This is what she tells us in the opening pages…

We were standing in our two-bedroom flat in the Promised Land and once gain it was clear that I wouldn’t be getting a cat for my birthday.

The Promised Land is West Germany in the 1960s, when the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the West was at its peak.

Along with her parents, the girl manages to flee the East German refugee camp where they were living for a while to finally land in West Germany with hopes of a better life and standard of living.

Gradually, as the novella progresses, we are given a glimpse of the narrator’s life, her tenuous relationship with her mother, and the toxic relationship between her parents.

The girl’s mother is a woman who is chronically disappointed with everything around her. In the opening pages, the mother who always dreamed of having teak furniture, still finds something to complain about even when that dream comes true.

We only really spent time in the lounge when there was something to watch on television or if it was a special occasion. It was stuffed with teak furniture, as much as it could fit inside the room. Both my father and my mother now said it had been a mistake to furnish the lounge with teak because teak needed to be polished all the time to keep it shiny.

Before she came to the West, my mother always dreamed of teak furniture, but of course she didn’t know you had to polish teak all the time because she’d only ever dreamed of it and had never owned any.

This disappointment and many others pervades at various points in the novella. Indeed, the mother comes from a wealthy family, and moving to the West was something that she always wanted. And yet when that reality comes into fruition, the mother continues to remain a disappointed woman, always stating so and dropping hints to her husband of her wealthy fiancé earlier (and killed in the war).

The father, meanwhile, does not really care much for the Promised Land and has no patience with his wife’s continuous complaints. It essentially means that the atmosphere at home is not really healthy and the girl grows up isolated.

When we were in the refugee camp my father didn’t live with us to begin with because he wanted to finish his studies in East Berlin and have time to think about whether he’d rather take a job in the East than join us in the West. He studied, had loads of girlfriends, like all students, and went to Western cinemas, which meant it took him a while to decide, and so in the meantime we were in the camp without him…

Vanderbeke’s writing style in this one is quite similar to that in The Mussel Feast – the prose forms loops and is circuitous and repetitive in nature. This actually heightens the impact of the narrative propelling it forward and makes for an invigorating read even when the subject matter is dark and the environment claustrophobic.

But it’s not all bleak. There is a glimmer of hope in the form of a globe our narrator receives as a birthday present, a reminder of happier times in the East and of possibilities in the future. Plus, she also begins to find her own voice…

Ever since I’d heard my voice, I’d been saying things I’d never have dared say before.

And only a few pages later…

Then we had supper. I didn’t forget to wash my hands, but when we were sitting at the table I said that I wasn’t hungry.

Of course you’re going to eat something, my mother said.

I heard the voice. It was slightly deeper than mine and very calm.

Like hell you will, it said.

Ultimately, You Would Have Missed Me asks us what really makes a home. Also, does an escape from a place of conflict to a freer land always guarantee a better life?

Through the eyes of our narrator, we realize that while the Promised Land has offered materialistic comforts not possible in a refugee camp, the girl was happier when they were living in East Germany. The critical factor here is relationships. In the refugee camp, she had her grandmother whose cooking she relished or Uncle Grewatsch, Uncle Winkelmann and Auntie Eka, who entranced her with nuggets of knowledge. None of which is now accessible to her in the Promised Land where the toxic and abusive relationship between her parents continue.

The broader idea of what constitutes a home is also very theme in today’s times in context of the refugee crisis we have been seeing. Those refugees who against all odds find their way into a freer Europe can’t really be sure that they will lead a more fulfilling life. There are challenges of assimilating into a completely foreign culture and adapting to a different way of life. There are economic considerations. And there are possibly those who were happier staying in their own country but were compelled by cruel circumstances to just abandon their homes and flee.

Overall, You Would Have Missed Me is an absorbing novella, although I would still rate The Mussel Feast higher.


Bottled Goods – Sophie van Llewyn

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.

Bottled Goods

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:

Paparuda, ruda,

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.