A. S. Byatt’s Possession is a deeply peculiar book. It won the Booker Prize when it was published in 1990, and as the Booker judges and I tend to have similar taste and the blurb intrigued me, I decided to give this one a go.
How to describe Possession? Possession is what you might get if Dan Brown had been an English major instead of a history nerd and actually had some skill with language.
Byatt clearly knows what she’s doing in terms of telling a story. Possession follows the similar paths of two (fictitious) Victorian poets, Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte, and two modern scholars, Roland Michell and Maud Bailey. Michell and Bailey stumble across a collection of scandalous letters exchanged by the married Ash and LaMotte, and set off on a race against a handful of other, pushy scholars to uncover what really happened before all the evidence is yanked out of their hands. Oh, and in the process they sort of fall in love. I say ‘sort of’ because it’s never entirely clear.
Roland and Maud are as peculiar a pair of lovers as you could ask for. Roland is a shy, unobtrusive young scholar who’s had the same girlfriend for almost ten years without ever really liking her that much and is constantly struggling to make ends meet. Maud is a successful scholar and formidable feminist, whose default setting seems to be ‘aloof.’ What they have in common is their love of poetry and the dead poets who wrote them. Academic passion slowly, clumsily transforms into a romantic passion – but instead of acknowledging it like any normal couple would, Roland crashes on Maud’s couch for a few weeks while they pretend to be totally platonic friends for no real reason. In the meantime they carry on dissecting the saga of Ash and LaMotte’s ill-fated love affair, and with the help of an eclectic group of friends, uncover some historically startling information. It’s a treasure hunt and a love story and an essay on human sexuality at once.
Byatt’s strengths are in storytelling and authenticity. Her characters are just weird enough to be real, and Ash and LaMotte convincing enough that I Googled them just to be sure they were, in fact, fictitious. It’s a good story and a well-written one, but it’s not perfect. Byatt favors an odd handful of words, which pop up so often in the text as to become a little exhausting. (The word ‘green’ is used so many times in the first few chapters that I was fighting the urge to reach for a pen and cross it out. Green is Maud’s spirit-color or whatever. We get it already. Ditto ‘serpentine.’ That is not a word you can use repeatedly.) She’s also prone to writing long-winded and relatively pointless journal entries as one of a crowd of secondary characters – Ash’s wife, Christabel’s cousin, etc. – which are clearly intended to impart pieces of crucial information without being overly obvious. But the result is that it’s boring and it would have been just as easy for Byatt to write, “Maud suddenly exclaimed, ‘Look at this passage here! Now we know why Christabel went back to Brittany!’” That being said, the story moves at a relatively good clip.
Possession is an undoubtedly interesting read. The narrative at times seems to undermine the author’s own suggestion that love and sex aren’t necessarily the same, but it still makes for an interesting study of poetry, sexuality, and gender norms both in the ’80s and the Victorian era. A good read for those who like their classics with a modern twist, or those who want something heady to chew on with a cup of tea on a rainy day.
3.5 stars. Find it on Goodreads here, then support your local bookstore by buying it there. (Yes, I am shameless.)