Author: Sophie van Llewyn
My Rating: 5 out of 5
I received this book as an Advance Reader Copy from Fairlight Books via NetGalley.
I was intrigued by the premise of this book: a tale that follows Alina as she grows up in communist Romania and tries to make a life for herself. I enjoy historical fiction, and I have not read much set in Eastern Europe. I was ready to be immersed in a unique plot and different setting. What I was not ready for was the impact that this novel would have on me.
The book jacket and summary note that the book uses magical realism and novella-in-flash formats, but I was struck by how absolutely effective these forms were at conveying intense emotion and an immersive reading experience. Sophia van Llewyn’s style drew me into a story that I read in one sitting…and then made sure to immediately read again.
Novella-in-flash is not a format that I had encountered before, and after the fact I have read about how this style is often used to help set the pace of reading and create an emotional impact for readers. Alina’s story and how she lived behind the iron curtain just trying to get by with what love and sanity she could was engrossing. As she faced obstacles caused by her marriage and brother-in-law, and as the Secret Police slowly began to close in on her, the emotional empathy that the text generated was striking. As we read on, we read faster. We need to know what happens next. We need to see what impact each action has or what paranoia are proven to be true. The unique format also allows van Llewyn to play with time, as each “chapter” or vignette can stand on its own as a story, and as you read them in sequence, bits of time in between are skipped over. This also affected the pacing, making the book read faster and faster for me as I went on. Some sections take a less “traditional” approach, presenting Alina’s experiences as list and/or flashbacks instead of typical dialogue or narrative. I found the change in form between sections especially effective for pacing but also for showing different sides of each character, giving each one more depth.
What it could have been like to live in Romania under those circumstances — censorship, brainwashing, worries about spies and bugged apartments, family choosing safety and government over loved ones — comes through loud and clear in a gut wrenching way. Alina is clearly on a collision course, not entirely of her own doing, and as her life spirals more and more quickly out of control, the sense of desperation, hope, hopelessness, rejection, and fear all ring true. I also appreciated that the inclusion of magical realism added more complexity to the story without detracting from the core message. As a reader who has not experienced the level of oppression that Alina does in the book, the events of her life have an almost incredulous or fantastical quality. And as mysticism and fantasy are sprinkled into a reality that is already hard to wrap your head around, they become just as plausible as that reality. The themes represented within the magical realism — baggage, regret, hope, and (again) desperation — ring true as they are woven into Alina’s daily life.
Reading this book inspired me to look at writing in a new way and even endeavor, one day, to try the form myself. I highly recommend this for anyone interested in fiction that will guide a reader to explore new emotional perspectives in a truly unique and masterful text.