Book Review: Bottled Goods

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.

Guest post from independent publisher, Fairlight Books

As part of my coverage of this year’s Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small presses I invited a number of the publishers whose books made it onto the longlist to contribute a guest post. I also offered to review the books should they wish to send me a copy. Throughout February I will be posting these reviews and the articles or Q&As received from the presses that responded. These offer a window into the variety of output and current state of play of the innovative publishers whose books I am always eager to read.

Today I welcome Lindsey from Fairlight whose book, Bottled Goods by Sophie van Llewyn, I will be reviewing tomorrow.

Fairlight Books is an independent publisher based in Oxford. Our aim is to promote literary fiction and quality writing by new and established authors. Literary fiction has been under threat in recent years and with our attractive books and illustration-led covers we are trying to reconnect readers to this strand of literature.

Established in 2017, we publish 7-10 titles per year, including hardback and paperback novels. For us, it’s all about quality, rather than quantity. We also publish novellas, as part of our Fairlight Moderns series.

One of the reasons writers of high-quality and literary fiction find it so hard to get published these days is because the system over the last few years has become very geared towards finding and promoting genre fiction, particularly the hugely popular genres of crime and thriller writing. In fact, The Arts Council recently suggested that literary fiction in the UK was in crisis.

Because of this, we think it’s important for us, as a publisher of literary fiction, to be innovative in how we source and promote literary fiction for readers.

One of the ways we do this is by focusing primarily on receiving our submissions direct from writers – not with windows that open for short periods of time at random moments, but through a constantly open submissions process. We review every single manuscript we receive and although sometimes it can take us a few months, we do get back to every single author with a response one way or the other.

We’re also unusual in that we are happy to publish and promote novella-length literary fiction. Our Fairlight Moderns series is quite unconventional in being made up of novellas of new English-language writing (not translations) from literary writers worldwide. With their gorgeous jewel-like covers, each with a unique illustration by New York-based Sam Kalda, this eclectic collection of stories from around the world is proving popular with readers. They are a great way of introducing new literary authors’ writing to a wider readership.

It’s great to see such prizes as The Republic of Consciousness Prize out there supporting small independent presses, and celebrating literary fiction. It offers a good opportunity to get visibility for our authors and expand our readership. Since one of our Fairlight Moderns, Bottled Goods by Sophie van Llewyn, was longlisted we’ve had a great response from the industry which has really raised awareness among readers as well.

Find out more about Fairlight Books on their website

You may also wish to follow them on Twitter: @FairlightBooks