Novels like Bottled Goods is the reason why historical fiction is one of my favourite genres. It’s like getting on a time machine and visiting a past I wouldn’t have even known that existed otherwise! 😀
This Women’s Prize for Fiction long-listed novel is set in Romania during the 1970s when it was under the rule of Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. Ceausescu government is considered one of the harshest totalitarian regimes of the past. Ceausescu implemented disastrous policies that destroyed the livelihoods of ordinary Romanian citizens while he and his extended family continued to plunder and amass wealth.
In addition to forcing Romanians to live under austerity measures, Ceausescu also stripped them of their right of free speech and religious expression. With the secret police everywhere doing Ceausescu’s bidding, Romanians lived in fear. So it was a time when you could trust no one… family, friends, and neighbors turned on other “comrades” to curry favor with the government and save their heads.
In Bottled Goods, the protagonist, Alina is a Mathematics teacher in her twenties. Much to her mother’s dismay, Alina has married Liviu, the son of a peasant, who is a fellow History teacher. This marriage has caused a rift between the mother and the daughter. Alina’s maternal grandparents had been wealthy landowners before Ceausescu came into power. Even though Alina’s mother, who worships “the beloved leader”, has embraced communism to an extent that she has cut ties from her family members, she sees fit to disapprove of Alina’s marriage because Liviu is from poor stock (this is just one of the many hypocrisies we encounter in the story!).
Although Alina and Liviu don’t have much, they are content at first, enjoying life to the extent one could while living under an oppressive government. But what little happiness they have gets taken away from them when Liviu’s brother, Mihai manages to defect Romania under the guise of vacationing in France. Mihai’s defection puts them in hot water with the government, turning them into personae non-gratae. Liviu gets taken away and interrogated. And in a punishment veiled as an honor, Liviu gets transferred to a school which is a three-hour commute. The ostracism and constant harassment that Alina and Liviu endure puts a strain on their marriage. And things get even worse when Alina turns a blind eye to a student who brought a contraband magazine to school without reporting her.
With a Secret Services agent who visits Alina one too many times whenever Liviu is away and a crumbling marriage, they realize the only way they could salvage their happiness is if they run away from Romania. Defecting from Romania is not an easy task, especially now that they are under surveillance. Yet Alina and Liviu concoct a plan to make their escape to the West possible with the help of Theresa, Alina’s aunt. There is one kink in their plan though – and that’s Alina’s mother who’d rather rat out her daughter to Secret Services than see her free. So this is where the magical realism aspect of the story comes in, tying the plot together. As bizarre and madcap those elements were, I really appreciated them – it definitely helped take the edge off of some of the harrowing things that were happening in the story, and made it more bearable.
Note: Many thanks to Harper Perennial for sending me a review copy of Bottled Goods.