Possession by A.S. Byatt – Book Review

Blurb from Goodreads

“Possession” is an exhilarating novel of wit and romance, at once an intellectual mystery and a triumphant love story.

“Literary critics make natural detectives,” says Maud Bailey, heroine of a mystery where the clues lurk in university libraries, old letters, and dusty journals.

Together with Roland Michell, a fellow academic and accidental sleuth, Maud discovers a love affair between the two Victorian writers the pair has dedicated their lives to studying: Randolph Ash, a literary great long assumed to be a devoted and faithful husband, and Christabel La Motte, a lesser-known “fairy poetess” and chaste spinster.

At first, Roland and Maud’s discovery threatens only to alter the direction of their research, but as they unearth the truth about the long-forgotten romance, their involvement becomes increasingly urgent and personal. Desperately concealing their purpose from competing researchers, they embark on a journey that pulls each of them from solitude and loneliness, challenges the most basic assumptions they hold about themselves, and uncovers their unique entitlement to the secret of Ash and La Motte’s passion.

My Review

Oh this is such a well written book.

The intricacies of plot which marry poetry, letters and traditional narrative in a glorious symphony of carefully chosen words. Everything has meaning. Every snippet of a letter, stanza of a poem…so much subtle metaphor and mirroring.
The timelines which were at times duelling but also richly echoed each other with parallel sensibilities.
The intoxication of what it is to possess and be possessed in all interpretations of the word. Does love mean you possess another? Do you lose yourself?

It truly is an incredibly fascinating book that kept me company for a week.

And above all what I loved is the emphasis on romance. But romance with gravitas. Romance that burns deep and true in the past and slow and hesitant in the present.

The book follows two academics, Roland and Maude, that individually study two Victorian poets, Randolph and Christabel respectively… and the discoveries of the affair between these two seemingly disparate poets drives the plot.

With Roland and Maude we as readers feel equally possessive of the relationship between Randolph and Christabel as they do. We feel the want and the need that this discovery is somehow theirs (and by extension ours as readers) alone. We want their memories honoured, respected… We are cocooned into the world of Roland and Maude. Everyone else is unworthy. Nefarious. They are the ones who are interested in the true romance and in respectfully preserving their writings….

And I loved those narrative choices. I loved that somehow even with the majority of the third person narration I felt as possessive about the story of Randolph and Christabel as Roland and Maude did. I loved how I forgave Roland and Maude for being somewhat shady and winnowing away the literary evidence of Randolph’s and Christabel’s affair. So ingenuously I happily damned any other academic as a villain of the piece as the author no doubt wanted.
And I loved that I ached for the main four characters. I yearned for them to be together. And I mean yearned. This book just stirred such emotion of longing and need for ownership within me.

This review doesn’t do justice to the novel. I’ve had a rather distressing few days due to a family bereavement but this novel somehow grounded me. It was my escape from the tears. It stole me away from the pain. And its bittersweet postscript made my heart leap in more ways than I could possibly describe.

I know this is a book that I could and should return to in future. I feel there is much I missed during this first reading. It’s just so richly layered and I need to come back to it to peel away some of what I know I missed this time around. I highly recommend this to fans of literary fiction and to anyone who wants a romance that will make their heart sing with its quiet subtleties that at once both masks and reveals the deeper emotion… a wonderfully complex juxtaposition of being in possession of ones heart. I think this might be the first booker prize winner that I have read that I truly enjoyed!

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9 thoughts on “Possession by A.S. Byatt – Book Review

    1. It’s a tricky one to classify. The historical fiction aspect of the book perhaps reads more like a Victorian classic and the contemporary aspect is now dated as the book was published in 1990 I believe and therefore the setting of the book is the late 1980s. It’s quite a chewy read but one that feels entirely unique and therefore I feel incredibly worthwhile.

      Liked by 1 person

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