Right from the first chapter the reader is left with no doubt that this book is steeped in magical realism. Alina is on her way to bury her Grandfather who was shrunk by her Grandmother to escape capture when the communists took over Romania. It’s as if the author, Sophia van Llewyn, is saying, if you don’t like magical realism then get out now.
Alina is twenty years old, a teacher, living in Communist Romania. The year is 1967. The Cold War is still encasing the country in ice. Things start to go wrong for Alina when her husband’s brother defects to France. Soon two Secret Service agents arrive and take her husband away for three days. Alina, especially after the episode with her husband, realises she should have known better when one day she turns a blind eye to one of her pupils having a magazine which is prohibited by the government. Another pupil points the magazine out to Alina and she still ignores them. She realises the severity of her mistake when a Secret Service agent turns up at her home. The reader is given a sense of what it must have been like living in a communist country during the Cold War. The anxious, claustrophobic feeling that anybody could be an informant and that you must stop and filter everything you say would have been horrible. The isolation experienced once there is even the slightest hint that you are on the list of people that the Secret Service is watching. Suddenly your friends don’t return your calls, your work colleagues no longer have lunch with you, you have become a social pariah. Alina hates living like this, cannot live like this. It is slowly destroying her. She must escape this life. The question is how?
This is a very short novel with a strange structure. Some chapters are lists with points of things that Alina feels she should or should not do with regards to various problems. For the most it works well. A novel way of delivering Alina’s thoughts to the reader while also informing the reader of some of the taboo activities in the Communist country. There is some great writing. “Every time the Secret Service man comes, she waits for the sword to fall and cut deep, but this is not his weapon of choice. He squeezes the air out of her lungs little by little, tightening her chest with menaces”, passages such as this show that this author has talent. This novel has been described as a novella in flash fiction. It is short in length and some chapters are only a page long, but I found this worked well and gave the book a frantic pace, which suited the narrative of Alina and her husband trying to escape Romania. I enjoyed this novel and although it would have been hard in such a short book, I would have liked to have seen the character of the Auntie fleshed out. Upon finishing, I thought that the choice of title for the book was brilliant. It’s impressive for a debut. 4 Stars.
Sophie van Llewyn is a Romanian-born author of historical fiction. She now lives in Germany. Her novella-in-flash BOTTLED GOODS (Fairlight Books) was longlisted for the Republic of Consciousness Prize 2019 and for the People's Book Prize. Sophie's work was published in various print and online journals, such as The Guardian, New Delta Review, Ambit, Litro, New South, Banshee, The Lonely Crowd, and many others. She has also been placed in a number of competitions. Recently, one of her pieces was shortlisted for the Bath Flash Fiction Award. Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, Best Small Fictions, Best Microfiction, Best of the Net.
Sophie is currently Resident Flash Fiction Writer at TSS Publishing.
I think that Sophie has great potential as a full length novel writer and I hope she goes on to write more.
There is a great interview with her at Fairlight books. Here is the link - https://www.fairlightbooks.co.uk/sophie-van-llewyn-interview/