From the Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses 2019 longlist – Bottled Goods by Sophie van Llewyn.
Bottled Goods is described as a novella in flash fiction. It is structured in short chapters with each offering a window into everyday life in Romania under Ceaușescu. The plot moves forward apace.
The protagonist is a young woman named Alina whose wealthy family lost their land to the communist government before she was born. Her mother is an apparent zealot for the regime, although this may be her way of retaining control over her daughter who has a tendency to dream of fulfilling yearnings of her own. Alina’s aunt, Theresa, has influential connections through her marriage and uses these to help her niece when she can.
Alina marries Liviu against her mother’s wishes. For all her communist ideals, Mother continues to regard her new son-in-law as a peasant. Refusing to help the newly weds who have defied her, their early married life is made more difficult than it needed to be. Alina resents that she must take a low paid job as a teacher to enable her husband to finish college, something she was thereby unable to achieve.
What hopes the young couple may have had for decent careers, which would have made life a little easier, are shattered when Liviu’s brother defects. This action brings his wider family under scrutiny from officials tasked with ensuring all comrades adhere to party diktats. Liviu is called in for questioning and then reassigned to work in a remote and difficult location. When Alina overlooks a breach of protocol by one of her students she too suffers the close attention of party officials. The couple now live in fear of more serious punishment, putting their marriage under greater strain.
The portrait of life under such a controlling government is cogently enraging to read. Alina must also live with the fear of betrayal from colleagues and even family who would be rewarded for providing information. Alina understands that her mother is selfish and desires a compliant daughter who puts the mother’s needs and wishes before her own. She struggles to accept that any parent would sacrifice a child as punishment for daring to try for a better way of life that does not include them.
Alina turns to Theresa for help and is offered a solution that requires a step of faith. As with any advantage gleaned in this country it comes at a cost, including the weight of guilt.
This is impressive storytelling with fully three dimensional scenes packed into each short segment. The characters appear rounded and real with their varied traits and behaviours. Communist Romania is as much a character as any of its people. The story has depth and passion whilst retaining flow and an engaging tension.
Despite the frustration and despair I felt at Alina’s treatment this was an historically fascinating tale. The unusual structure was harnessed with skill and then worked superbly to build empathy. There are magical elements which could be taken at face value or accepted as metaphors that offer further details to consider.
Alina is presented as a far from perfect individual with her trials providing a foundation for portraying the realities of life under a closed, communist dictatorship. Written with flair and precision this is an immersive and compelling read.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Fairlight Books.