The short punchy chapters which make up Sophie Van Llewyn's “Bottled Goods” have the feel of flash fiction. They are a sequence of snippets (usually in the form of diary entries or lists) in its protagonist Alina's life within communist Romania. Together they form a portrait of this period of the 1970s rife with paranoia and fear of the secret services. In this hostile environment Alina can't even trust her mother. Like in the novel “Milkman” it's best to go unnoticed in this fractured society. But both Alina and her husband Liviu come under suspicion when his brother defects to the West. Their relationship comes under strain as they feel pressure from the government and need to take radical measures to survive. While I appreciated the way this novel in pieces tried to create an impression of Alina's experience in an oppressive place, the novel didn't quite come together to me as it rushed over some emotionally complex situations and the fantastical elements of the story felt tacked on. 

The most vibrant and interesting character for me was Alina's eccentric Aunt Theresa who is in a privileged position with the government so can continue pursuing her religious and superstitious practices. I was also compelled by the inordinate pressure Alina and Liviu receive not just from the government but the other citizens surrounding them. A fairly minor infringement from a girl in Alina's class means she's subjected to torturous scrutiny and gossip from those around her. I was also moved by the way her relationship with Liviu sours when he's rigorously cross questioned by the authorities, but their marriage is too easily patched up and some incidents of trauma are handled too briskly. I was interested in how mother and daughter come to such a crisis that Alina was prepared to do anything to silence her, but sadly rather than adding a dynamic layer to this strife the fable-like element introduced detracted from the impact of this crucial part of the story. I wonder if this novel would have worked better as a single short story.

AuthorEric Karl Anderson