Bottled Goods Cover

Bottled Goods

Sophie van Llewyn

A tale of communist Romania written in an extraordinary style.

Liviu protects me too much from the outside world. I’m afraid that one of these days the dam he built will break and all the world’s ugliness will spill out and drown me.

Bottled Goods is a captivating, one-of-a-kind work. A flash fiction novella, it follows the life of Alina, a citizen of Romania during the 1970s when it was experiencing a period of communist rule. Married to Liviu, Alina’s marriage, although happy and hopeful at first, struggles when Alina’s brother-in-law defects to the West. Alina now finds herself under strain as she and her family are prime suspects in an investigation by the state. The investigation sees Alina questioning what the future holds for her and how she will cope under this new scrutiny. Feeling trapped, Alina turns to her aunt for help, a woman who is well versed in the practices of the old folk ways.

Llewyn masterfully crafts a variety of literary texts from letters and diary entries to lists and postcards, all of which provide a different level of understanding into Alina’s life and the toll that is taken on her marriage. The novella almost functions as a collection of snippets which provide a peculiar yet enchanting way to experience the story. The shift from first person to third person narratives blend with the collage of different text styles, leaving the reader in constant surprise as to what the next page will hold. Not only is Bottled Goods a novella, meaning it is shorter than the average novel, but the sections, are only a few pages long, making it a book that is perfectly-matched for a reader who is always on the move.

How did the format of the novella impact on the story?

How do you think the magical realism elements contributed to the Alina’s narrative?

Did you find the use of Romanian folktales entertaining? Were you familiar with the term ‘strigoi’ before reading the book?

Did any of the writing styles particularly appeal to you?

What does the ending imply about Alina’s mother?

How do ambiguous chapter titles draw you, as the reader, in?

What effect does the use of Romanian language have on the novel? Do you feel it helped immerse you in the setting?

Were you surprised by Alina’s breakdown towards the end of the novel? What do you think Sophie van Llewyn was hoping to communicate with this brief section and does it have an effect on the story?

Little is mentioned of Alina’s father. Why do you think this is? Did van Llewyn want Alina to have a limited support network, leaving her to face the pressures of the communist government – somewhat independently?

How does van Llewyn subtly build the separation of Alina and Liviu throughout the book?


Alina and Liviu manage to escape Romania, fleeing to Germany by car under the guise of a holiday. Years after emigrating to Germany, Alina sees on the news that a revolution is taking place in Romania and calls her aunt. Aunt Theresa informs her that she has found her Alina’s mother and that she is currently hiding in Grandfather’s cage to avoid the cat.  Alina and Liviu go on vacation to Tenerife; it is implied from Alina’s manner that they are going through a rough patch in the marriage. It is revealed as a series of postcards from Alina to her Mother that Alina and Liviu have since divorced, with Alina staying in a mental institution to recover from a breakdown she suffered. A message in the form of an email arrives from Aunt Theresa who informs Alina that they received her postcards. She also implies that Alina’s mother has died, the result of an incident with the cat.

Alina returns to her hometown to visit her aunt; there she finds all the glasses turned upside down like when the strigoi was present. She asks her Aunt where she buried her mother to which Aunt Theresa replies that she lied and presents Alina with a wooden box.

Bottled Goods was longlisted for the 2019 Women’s Prize for Fiction.

Sophie van Llewyn is an award-winning flash fiction author who took up writing during her maternity leave.


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‘There's something in the way we swirl around each other late in the evening, whispering in one another's ear, gathering the remnants of our feast. There's something in the way we smile and hold our hands, turn the TV, radio, up loud, leave the water running, confounding the men who tapped into our lives, so we can speak and make plans about our brightening future. There's something in the way hope creeps up behind our backs and presses its palms against our eyes, leaving us smiling, but blind to the future. And we are both reluctant to speak its name, for fear that it might vanish. There's something in the way we hold each other at night, like shipwrecked passengers, like the summer when the sea was licking at our toes, like the first time we met. There's something in the way we say, We will, We will, We will, ringing in our ears like music’. – The subtle brilliance of Sophie Van Llewyn's novella, Bottled Goods, is in its simplicity of writing, compounded by a compelling story of life under a communist regime. Narrated in episodic vignettes, from shifting perspectives, you follow Alina, a teacher in a local school under constant scrutiny from the Secret Services, following her brother-in-law's recent escape to a neighbouring country. Her problems are further accentuated by the stifling interference of her over-bearing mother and her crumbling marriage. Alina takes the help of her Aunt Theresa, a manifestation of all the rich tradition and folklore, beliefs and myth of ancient Romania, to plan her escape from the tightening noose of her increasingly precarious circumstances. The narrative is laced with wonderful touches of magical realism that fit very well into the narrative. – The short chapters and poetic allure of the writing, interesting choice of words and punctuation made this novella an incredibly unique piece of writing. It felt reminiscent of stories from Anthony Marra's The Tsar of Love and Techno and The Accusation by Bandi. If there are a few books you are planning to read from the longlist, make this one of them! – Rating: 4/5 – #bottledgoods #fairlightmoderns #bookreview #womensprize #womensprizelonglist #novella #romania #magicalrealism

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In communist Romania, it is a crime to buy a foreign chocolate; so when people escape to the west, it is a cardinal sin; wait except that to believe in God is also a crime. Alina and her husband Liviu are a young teacher couple living reasonable peacefully as ‘comrades’, until one day Liviu’s brother defects to the West. Their life becomes miserable after that, having to live under constant Secret Service surveillance. One day, they decide to defect as well. When their plans are about to be thwarted, Alina seeks help from her Aunt Theresa. Theresa, a kind and resourceful lady, is a big believer of Romanian folklore traditions and this is where she asks Alina to find solutions in. Will Alina be able to escape from this regime that turns a brother against a brother and a daughter against a mother? This book has basically stunned me. When I started it, I was expecting another of the “escape from oppressive regime” stories, a multitude of which I have devoured in recent time like Exit West, Refuge and The Stationery Shop. I was still very much interested in reading the book, because I had never read anything about Romania. The first half flowed smoothly, showing the glimpses of life in a communist society where anything from bread to lipstick is rationed and where people can be marked as traitors for not reporting children who brought banned magazines to school. When the tension was building up for the second half, I was expecting a dramatic thriller with a nerve wracking climax, but the turn of events left me surprisingly in splits. The writing is sparse, and in a lot of portions reads like a diary entry. It is sprinkled with references to Romanian food and traditions. This book is part socio-realism, part magical realism and part thriller. It made me realize that “Bottled Goods” can be a euphemism for both things that we wish to escape from and things that we work to pack away and never look back on. #bookstagram #booksofinstagram #womensprize #womensprize2019 #fairlightmoderns #bottledgoods #sophievanllewyn #bibliophile #bookhoarder #bookphotography #bookreview #romania #romanianrevolution #womensprizelonglist

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