BOOK REVIEW: Bottled Goods by Sophie van Llewyn

The charm of Van Llewyn’s writing lies in the simplicity of the language. You’re not expecting anything bad to happen. You’re dancing along in the half-poetic-haze of short sentences, well-chosen words from the less obscure end of the vocabulary range, and a wonderful rhythm of punctuation– highly sophisticated starts and stops. (A feeling heightened by the quaintness of the size and design of the Fairlight Moderns edition: you feel more wholesome simply holding it.)

The protagonist remains somewhat distant throughout Bottled Goods; perhaps a side-effect of the (intentional) naivety of the language, the alien bewilderment Alina so obviously feels for the regime she is stuck inside. Although, in Communist Romania, as distance is one of the best form’s of defence, I can’t help but thinking there is more that is intentional in this slim novella than might first meet the eye. We, like Alina’s mother, are a threat to be kept our place, a safe distance away. As Alina herself says towards the end of the novella, ‘I have prepared some shields’.

All relationships in this story are framed by their isolation, by the closeness not written about and the dialogue unsaid. Alina’s relationship with her mother is certainly not to be envied, her mother embodying the informant culture that was so prevalent under the umbrella of Communism. (The only thing ‘collective’ in this work is the tattling.)  It all gets a bit George’s Marvellous Medicine at one point between Alina and her mother, one of the ways in which you’re thrown off the trail of the serious and the sinister that underlies this story by the magic and the fairy dust of the writing’s surface. Alina’s mother is the method by which Communism gets into your house, into your essence; and once it’s in, it visits every Tuesday morning dressed in black, a la Josef K’s pursuers, a la anything anonymous that fills you with dread.

The Secret Service man is the grimmest character in Bottled Goods, cruelty without a face, and the part of the work that is hardest to read. The part where all decoration falls away, and you’re left with the bare bones of a dying pine tree in the living room, termites gnawing into its ex-sides. You’re made acutely aware of the fine thread by which Alina’s freedom dangles. Counteracted only by the glorious Aunt Theresa, a manifestation of folklore, tradition, nostalgia, lost, dying out, yet somehow also safe. She’s outside the law, she’s knows people who know people, stick by her and you’ll be alright. She’s the light at the end of Alina’s tunnel; like Liviu her husband should be, but somehow isn’t. Once a person gets close enough, for your own safety you must push each other away.

There is a distance between Alina and Liviu that is only broken in memory, the memory of how it used to be (much like the pre-Communist good old days). There are moments where they pull together, allies against a common enemy, but you never quite believe in it, too much for them seems to have been lost already. Stripped, squeezed, bottled, and buried. The tragedy of the irreversible.

In this novella everything is squeezed, a country closing in around one’s neck. In chapter ‘The Pinch’, which seems to refer not only to an actual pinch, but also to the stifle of Alina’s relationship with Liviu, to the confines of a country, to multiple constrictions getting tighter and tighter. For such a theme, a novella makes the perfect form.

As do the bullet-points, the flash-like chapters, the chapters-in-list-form: in unstable times, we need such structure to pull us together, keep us in check. Alina must break down the problem into manageable morsels, get her lies right. If she wants to survive. If she wants to remember. And remembering is key for everyone involved here, for good or bad, in the short term or the long, one’s history is important. In the post-Communist reunion between Alina and Romania, and in one of the most brilliantly titled chapters in the story—‘Roast Beef Frosted with Pink Fudge’, when Alina returns after years of exile, even after everything that had happened to her, she feels the loss of how Romania used to be. How it’s shed one unpleasant skin for some gaudy new one, instead of taking the time to make the old skin right again. She witnesses another form of forgetting, this time in ‘pink and orange tracksuits’. What was taken by the Communists remains gone, just gone in a different way.

Alina ‘casts a long shadow’; that shadow is memory, the only thing that is real is the thing that remembers. Between the fantastical fate of Alina’s mother and the magical, superstitious beliefs of Aunt Thaisa, all we can be sure about is that something happened. There was a point one Saturday when ‘everything changed’.

Bottled Goods is testament to boundaries of all kinds, to those that should be crossed, those that shouldn’t, those that are crossed without permission, in secret, and those that can never be re-crossed once traversed, the ones that dissolve by the very act of crossing them. Once you smash the bottle, once it rains on the resultant pieces, there is no longer any bottle there.

Bottled Goods is published by Fairlight Books and is available here.

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Sophie van Llewyn

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Sophie van Llewyn is a Romanian-born author of short stories, flash fiction and, most recently, a novella Bottled Goods, published 11 July, 2018.

Sophie grew up in Tulcea, south-east Romania, close to the Danube delta. As a child, she used to spend her summer holidays at her grandparents’ home at the seaside in Constanta. Sophie started writing when she was in fifth grade, and even won a third place at a country-level short story competition. Sophie was also editor-in-chief at her school’s newspaper.

Now living in Germany, Sophie picked up her writing again while on maternity leave from her day job. It is then that she discovered flash fiction through Ad Hoc Fiction Press. Trying her hand at short fiction, reading it intensely, doing workshops with other gifted writers helped her improve her writing and editing techniques. She discovered the concept of novella-in-flash by reading Rose Metal Press’ collection My Very End of the Universe, and was eager to try it for herself. Soon, Sophie was publishing short stories in various publications, such as The GuardianNew Delta ReviewAmbitLitro, and many others. She has also won and been longlisted for a number of competitions. Last year, Sophie was nominated for The Pushcart Prize.

In her free time Sophie used to do horseback riding and she sometimes still plays the piano. But her one-and-a-half-year-old toddler is her main ‘hobby’ now.

Interested to find out more? Listen to Sophie’s interview on BBC’s The Arts Hour.

Reviewed by Lydia Unsworth

Lydia Unsworth is the author of two collections of poetry: Certain Manoeuvres (Knives Fork & Spoons, 2018) and Nostalgia for Bodies (Erbacce, 2018). Winner of the 2018 Erbacce Poetry Prize, she has also had work published in various places including AmbitPankKillAuthorTears in the FenceBanshee Lit, and Sentence: Journal of Prose Poetics. Based in Manchester/Amsterdam. Twitter @lydiowanie.

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