book review: Bottled Goods by Sophie van Llewyn

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BOTTLED GOODS by Sophie van Llewyn
★★★☆☆
Fairlight Books, 2018

 

I think Bottled Goods is an interesting, impressive book in a number of ways, but I can’t help but to feel a bit underwhelmed by it. It tells the story of Alina, a young woman living in 1970s communist Romania, whose family comes under surveillance when her brother-in-law defects to the west. Blending a quotidian story with elements of Romanian folklore, this book is a unique, magical creation that I think will satisfy a lot of readers despite its brevity.

But while I was particularly intrigued by its ‘novella-in-flash’ premise, it turned out that the whole flash thing kind of ruined it for me. Each of these chapters is brief – some are a few sentences, some are two or three pages – and each jumps the narrative ahead several weeks or months with no preamble. I hadn’t realized just how much I appreciate a consistent pace and flow in storytelling, but I guess it makes sense, because I’ve noticed over the years that my reading speed gradually increases the further into a book I get; at the very beginning, before I’ve been pulled into the narrative, my mind wanders easily and I find myself rereading the same passages over and over. That’s what kept happening to me with this book – it’s only 190 pages, and rather tiny pages at that, but it took me probably six or seven sittings to get through it, because the jolting pace made it particularly difficult for me to care about any of it.

But anyway, all of that has more to do with me as a reader than what this book does or does not offer. I think it offers a lot: it’s a perceptive commentary about a young woman living under an oppressive governmental regime, an interesting counterpart to Milkman on the Women’s Prize longlist (though I think Milkman is the stronger novel in just about every conceivable way). And I did find its unique style both paradoxically stimulating and distracting; hopefully it will fall more toward the stimulating end of the spectrum for a lot of readers. Finally, I know that everyone who knows me was worried about my reception to this book as soon as the words ‘magical realism’ entered the summary, but I actually didn’t mind that element – I’m not sure it added anything that couldn’t have been achieved with more literal storytelling, but it was an interesting way to comment on the lengths one goes to in order to escape an oppressive government. So on the whole, not really the book for me, but a solid book nonetheless.


You can pick up a copy of Bottled Goods here on Book Depository.

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24 thoughts on “book review: Bottled Goods by Sophie van Llewyn

    • I completely forgot to touch on that in my tangent about my own distractibility, but yes, that definitely tied into it; it wasn’t nearly as substantive as I thought the subject matter warranted. There were some interesting ideas that I think van Llewyn ultimately handled well, but my own ‘why should I emotionally invest in this’ feeling underscored the whole reading experience sadly…

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  1. You are so close to the end of the longlist!
    I found myself nodding along to a lot of your review even though the book worked less for me than it did for you. I found myself distracted the whole way through as well, even though I read it on one plane ride and not over a few days. I just thought I would love this more than I did (I do love magical elements and flash fiction so this seemed an obvious book for me) and maybe my reaction was as strongly as it was because of this.

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    • I’m still so mad about the Remembered situation! Ugh. Oh well.

      I don’t know if reading it on a plane would have been better or worse tbh, because on the one hand you kind of have to force yourself to power through it, but on the other hand… you have to force yourself to power through it. Maybe that would have made me resent it more. Weirdly enough I thought I’d enjoy it too – I thought my appreciation for short stories would translate to flash fiction (and maybe other flash fiction will work for me, I don’t want to judge all of it by this one book) and I loved the premise as I don’t think I’ve read a book set in Romania and I’ve always been very interested in that country. But, it wasn’t meant to be.

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  2. Great review! I enjoyed this one a little more than you did, but everything you’re saying here feels spot on. I know I tend to like short pieces, and I think I’m a bit more enthusiastic about magical realism, so this was a pretty good fit for my reading taste. But I do completely agree that Milkman is the clear winner in a comparison between these two, and though I had fun with Bottled Goods, I find that I’d be more excited about either of the other two novellas showing up on the shortlist.

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    • Thank you! Yes, completely – I think the context in which I was reading this did affect my opinion on it somewhat. If I had read it a year from now, who knows, but reading it so close to Milkman, which is perfection, and GW/MSTSK, which are such accomplished novellas, it didn’t feel like it was offering a whole lot to the longlist. If it’s shortlisted over any of those I’ll be very annoyed indeed.

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  3. Absolutely – this is a great comparison read to Milkman, because they’re such different stylistic approaches to not dissimilar material. I think the magical realism works because there’s such a strong tradition of that, and of absurdism, in literature written under and/or about totalitarian regimes. (In fact, parts of Milkman felt like they were a hairsbreadth away from that; but one of the things that makes it so strong, I think, is that Burns is always careful to keep the realism front and center, letting us know that these things are shocking and bizarre but one hundred percent realistic.) The flash worked better for me than for you, possibly because I find it very difficult to write with such uncompromising brevity, and am always willing to be awed by writers who can do it!

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    • All very good points! I don’t think I minded the magical realism for the same reason – the MR that I find myself most staunchly opposed to is the certain brand of it that exists only to foist an unearned whimsical tone onto the material, but I didn’t think that was van Llewyn’s conceit at all, especially given the tradition that you mentioned. But yes, it’s very interesting to compare van Llewyn’s and Burns’ approaches as they were both able to reach a kind of heightened absurdity, one through magic and one through realism. It’ll be interesting to see which of the two of them advances – I doubt we’ll see both on the shortlist for the same reason that I think the judges will be deciding between Circe and Silence, and An American Marriage and Ordinary People. So much of this longlist naturally pairs off!

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      • It would indeed….. or even a list of themes that seem relevant to the judges this year and the books that fall into each of those categories (modern day relationships crumbling under social pressure; women under surveillance; realism heightened by magic and absurdity; women being silenced).

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  4. Though the plot sounds interesting, I have to admit that the cover would give me pause. It looks almost juvenile, like something perhaps for middle grade readers. Is the cover representative of the content in some way?

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    • I actually like the cover! It ticks most of my cover boxes: minimalism, illustrations, clean font, cats. I know what you mean though, it does give off a somewhat juvenile vibe, and I wouldn’t say it’s a perfect reflection of the contents within.

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  5. After reading this post, I fished out The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney from my TBR shelf. Thank you so much for prompting that read…its is just such a fabulous book, and very close to my heart as I am from cork City. Can’t wait to get my handa on The Blood Miracles…not ready to say goodbye to Ryan yet 😏

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    • AHHH YES ❤ I'm SO happy you loved it so much! I've never been to Cork (or, in fact, anywhere in Ireland) but I can imagine it must have been so brilliant to read such a vibrantly depicted portrayal of your home town. The Blood Miracles is a bit different since it narrows its focus to Ryan and is all about drugs and gangs and I get why some people haven't liked it quite as much as TGH, but imo Ryan is the best character and I was still SO riveted by his story in the sequel. Just, ugh, what a tragic character.

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      • I know. I loved Maureen too. It’s a very different Cork to the one I grew up in…thank God, but it was good to see descriptions of places I know etc.

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