Not to be Overlooked introduces a variety of wonderful but lesser-known books to assist readers in finding their next great reads. This week’s column covers reviews of two fiction titles by Emma (Bottled Goods) and Emily (The Ormering Tide).
Bottled Goods by Sophie van Llewyn
As we’ve recently received the longlist for this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction, this is a somewhat topical small review. Sophie van Llewyn’s novella-in-flash was published by the Oxford-based indie publisher, Fairlight Books in 2018, and longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2019.
Set in Romania in the 1970s under Ceausescu’s Communist regime, this unusual and bittersweet novella was a delight to discover. Bottled Goods follows Alina, a young teacher who yearns to break free of the suspicion and surveillance of a totalitarian state. The novella packs in a great deal with pace and poignancy — Alina’s coming of age, her marriage and strained relationship with her mother.
I haven’t read many books set in Romania but the setting vividly expresses how the traditions and culture of its past clashed with the new regime. From interrogations and secret police to rain dances and superstition, the oppressive feeling of paranoia and claustrophobia is shot through with moments of joy and comedy.
Sophie van Llewyn weaves magical realism and Romanian folklore with hard-hitting modern brutality. The novella is told in bursts of flash fiction which shift in tone and perspective; some chapters are made up of bullet points, lists and in diary-form and the more narrative prose moves from first to third person at random. Bottled Goods integrates whimsy and humour alongside despair and isolation. Alina’s aunt Theresa is a joy of a character and I loved the hidden revelation of the title’s significance. An unpredictable and quirky read — for fans of Wes Andersen, magic realism and historical fiction.
The Ormering Tide by Kathryn Williams
Stumbling upon Kathryn Williams’s debut novel by chance, I was enamoured by the cover design and hooked by the blurb. Described as a coming-of-age story, the novel is told through the eyes of the narrator, Rozel, who begins in the prologue on the night before her wedding day. The story then unfolds through the seasons as we accompany the thoughtful and inquisitive Rozel as a child, in addition to her becoming a young adult.
It is set on an isolated island off the mainland, after a war that still leaves its remnants in the form of watchtowers and the recent memory of soldiers. Although it is not a huge focal point and usually referenced in snippets, it is evident that the trauma still lingers on the island and in Rozel herself. This ties into the main theme of the novel, of processing the past after the fact. Apart from the prologue, Rozel is narrating with hindsight and constantly reflects, combining her recollection with the benefit of hindsight.
The main plot point of the story is when one of Rozel’s triplet brothers goes missing, marking a colossal impact on each member of her family. The family dynamics begin to shift and shape markedly and Williams demonstrates with nuance, the way tragedy can manifest. The way Williams uses the weather and the changing of the seasons to move the plot along is applied so seamlessly, allowing the story to gently unravel with every page.
Although the book is full of darkness and cruelty, what shines through is the collective power of a family unit. From Rozel’s unwavering relationship with her Maman who seems ahead of her time, and strangely ahead of this time, to the steadily cultivated bond with her older brother John. Her family experiences unimagined hardship, but because of the honesty and trust between them, they are all able to take on their share of the burden, lightening the load off of one another. Williams’ writing draws you into The Ormering Tide with her expertly built world, and the fleshing out of characters with their amalgamation of charisma and flaws. Initially, I ordered this book on a whim from Wrecking Ball Press, but I already know that this will be one of my favourite books of the year, and will recommend it to anyone that is looking for that read-in-a-day magic that they may have thought they’d lost.