Review: Bottled Goods by Sophie van Llewyn

38720267Verdict: Weirdly not for me.

My rating: 2 out of 5 stars

Genre: Literary Fiction, Historical Fiction, Short Stories

Published by Fairlight Books, 2018

Find it on Goodreads.

When Alina’s brother-in-law defects to the West, she and her husband become persons of interest to the secret services, causing both of their careers to come grinding to a halt.

As the strain takes its toll on their marriage, Alina turns to her aunt for help – the wife of a communist leader and a secret practitioner of the old folk ways.

Set in 1970s communist Romania, this novella-in-flash draws upon magic realism to weave a tale of everyday troubles, that can’t be put down.

This book was really not for me – and this is weird because I really thought it would be. I love novels told in short stories and I love books inspired by Eastern European fairy tales. But I really failed to connect to this book. Part of this has to do with the fact that I read so many similar books that this felt derivative in a way that feels mean to communicate (drawing on real life atrocities as it is).

Told in short, flash fiction like chapters, this is Alina’s story, as she is navigating an increasingly cold marriage while living in a dictatorship that threatens everything about her life. It is similar in themes to the (much better) Milkman and maybe the closeness in which I read these books were to its detriment. Alina is incapable of communicating effectively with those closest to her and van Llewyn shows how the climate of the time suffocates any possible feeling between Alina and the others. The insidiousness of her dealings with the secret police is explored, but it mostly stayed on the surface. Scenes were strikingly similar to other books in a way that seems like it might have been intentional (the obvious comparison for me was The Zsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra, a book also told in short stories and dealing with atrocities but also a book I adore beyond measure). I guess what I am trying to communicate is that I found this book lacking in comparison to other novels, a critique that is not particularly helpful, I know.

For me, the book worked best in the stories that were more magical in nature, here I thought van Llewyn really added something to the canon. Her exploration of fairy tales in dictatorships was lovely and interesting. It helped that my favourite character (the wonderful Aunt Theresa) was front and centre of these fairytalesque stories. This is not a bad book by any means but one that I found not quite exciting and not as well written as I would have hoped it would be.

I am reading the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist this year. My current ranking is as follows:

  1. The Pisces by Melissa Broder (review)
  2. Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi (review)
  3. Milkman by Anna Burns (review)
  4. Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss (review)
  5. Bottled Goods by Sophie van Llewyn
  6. Praise Song for the Butterflies by Bernice L. McFadden (review)

17 thoughts on “Review: Bottled Goods by Sophie van Llewyn

  1. Doesn’t sound like you’ve had much luck with the Women’s Prize longlist recently! This is another one I’ve already decided not to read, unless it gets shortlisted.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I really didn’t… But I did start with a few books I was apprehensive about. The books I really think I will love I bought in hardback and I have pretty much exclusively listened to audiobooks these last few weeks. I am really hopeful that I will love a lot of the remaining books (I am enjoying neither Lost Children Archive nor Swan Song, so I’ll probably have gotten the books that aren’t my cup of tea out of the way soon).

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I am super looking foward to Circe! I read the first few pages and it is so stunningly written (especially compared to the other longlisted books I have read recently) that I might just end up adoring it.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. It’s really interesting to hear you mention Milkman, because it seems to me as though Anna Burns and Sophie van Llewyn basically decided to deal with similar subjects in polar opposite ways: Burns by going so deep, so granular, so detailed and claustrophobic, that a reader almost feels they’re experiencing things alongside Middle Sister, and van Llewyn by highlighting the absurdity and cruelty of an oppressive regime through indirection and fable. I guess it’s not surprising that one approach might work much better for a particular reader than the other! (I enjoyed them both, but I do think Milkman is more dedicated to pushing the boundaries further.)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That is a really good point! The execution is vastly different but both ruminate on the cost on normal human relationships the environment has. For me, this did not work but I do think it has more to do with who I am as a reader than anything else. It feels very German in its structure and narrative tone – and I have read loads of similar books it seems.

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  3. Thoughtful review, and thanks for the warning! I’d been considering checking this out, just because of how short it is, but it doesn’t sound worth the time.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Nice review! I had a better time with this one, but other than Milkman I couldn’t think of anything else very similar that I had already read. Ultimately I do prefer Milkman as well; it seems impossible not to compare the two, but even so I also enjoyed reading Bottled Goods. Like you, the magical sections were my favorites here, although I think I appreciated them more for their sparseness.
    I hope you’ll have better luck with the longlist going forward!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! I think it mostly reminded me of German post war literature. I might have read this at the wrong time as well, I read it on a plane and maybe should have stuck with Urban Fantasy while surrounded by the awfulness that is a 12 hour plane ride.

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