Author: A.S. Byatt
Publishing Date: 1991
Number of Pages: 511
Genre: Romance, Poetry, Literary Fiction, English Literature
Possession is an exhilarating novel of wit and romance, at once an intellectual mystery and triumphant love story. It is the tale of a pair of young scholars researching the lives of two Victorian poets. As they uncover their letters, journals, and poems, and track their movements from London to Yorkshire—from spiritualist séances to the fairy-haunted far west of Brittany—what emerges is an extraordinary counterpoint of passions and ideas.
There is always a pleasant surprise to be found in books one barely had any expectation of. That was the case with A.S. Byatt’s Possession: A Romance. When I bought a copy of the book a couple of years aback, the only thing that made my spirits soar is the fact that it won the 1990 Man Booker Prize. Moreover, the book is included in the 1,001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. Unfortunately, I barely had an iota on what the story is all about but the accolades it got made me expect a lot from it.
The story opened in the sacrosanct halls of the London Library. While researching on Victorian poet Randolph Henry Ash, Roland Michell, a scholar and biographer, discovered handwritten drafts of a letter by the said poet. By the letters content, he concluded that the married fictional author had a liaison outside of his marriage. To retrace the story of this illicit romance, he got in touch with fellow scholar and biographer, Dr. Maud Bailey. Dr. Bailey follows the life and times of Victorian poetess Isabel LaMotte. What follows is a chain of events that can reverberate throughout the literary world.
At the start, I was struck by the slow progress of the narrative. It seems to be falling short of my expectation. However, the story began picking up when Michell interacted with Bailey. Using amateurish sleuthing skills, the two embarked on a journey to uncover, if there is any, the relationship between Ash and LaMotte. The story got all the more interesting as Byatt was relentless in throwing curve balls, keeping the readers hooked from the start to finish.
What happens when two poets get tangled in an obscure relationship?
The basic premise of the story is its highest point. It makes it one of the most interesting stories I’ve had in a while. Although it is an ordinary love story, what makes it interesting is the manner in which the romance story was narrated. It was narrated using different forms such as letters, diary entries, and poetry. This easily could have been the inspiration for Cecilia Ahern’s Love Rosie.
As the book’s title suggests, the prevailing theme is possession. It was depicted literally in different situations such as the legal right on significant cultural and historical artifacts; the ownership between and amongst lovers; and ultimately the possession biographers feel towards their subjects. The book also sheds a light on one of the biggest issues in the world of art, theft and black market transactions. The need for stricter laws to safeguard national art treasures such as letters, books among other artifacts is underlined in the litany of words.
One pleasant surprise in the book is the poetry. However, the poetry can both be a delight and a challenge. Unraveling the differences in the writing style of Ash and LaMotte and also the subjects of their poetry is fascinating. These poems are filled with numerous syllogisms. The challenge is how to navigate through the plethora of symbols embedded in each work of poetry. At times, the poetic element becomes overbearing.
I am not much of a fan of poetry though and I just tried to fathom the importance of the poems in the context of the story. I did try to observe the elements of poetry such as rhyme scheme and meter. However, this lack of understanding didn’t affect my appreciation of the book. I still feel that there was something romantic in the manner in which lovers communicate with each other. In a world where everything is one click away, poetry and love letters are lost arts.
The story is told in set in both the present and Victorian era, highlighting the differences and similarities between the two periods. This resulted into two interesting plot lines involving four individuals. The two plot lines run tangent to each other. Although these plot lines converged at some point, they are nonetheless distinct. Whereas the original plot line is interesting, the second one is predictable though inevitable. One can already surmise on how the second plot line is going to end halfway through the story. It if funny now that I realize that Ash and LaMotte’s love story is a foreshadowing.
Possession: A Romance Story is both complex and straightforward. It has numerous facets that worked. The story was astonishing. The manner in which it was told was mesmerizing. There is so much to be said about this book. The academia stamped all over it can be one’s understudy. From its different elements, poetry is what stood out. It is beautiful and overwhelming at the same time. Possession: A Romance is in part a celebration of the beauty of writing and ultimately, the beauty and tragedy of love. It made me cry, it made me smile, it made me feel frustrated and it made me sad. A book that makes one emotionally invested in the story is something that deserves the encomium it got.
Recommended for lovers of poems and poetry, for those who like romance stories, for those looking for out-of-the-box story lines, and for those who are looking for well-written stories.
Not recommended for those who dislike poetry, those who dislike romance stories, and those who dislike books about writing.
About the Author
A.S. Byatt, or Dame Antonia Susan Duffy was born on August 24, 1936 in Sheffield. She was recognized as one of the 50 greatest British writers since 1945 by The Times newspaper in 2008.
Her first novel, The Shadow of the Sun was published in 1964. This was followed by The Game (1967), The Virgin in the Garden (1978) and Still Life (1985). But her biggest success came in 1990 when Possession: A Romance won the Man Booker Prize. It was also made into a movie in 2002. She nearly got close to winning the award again in 2009 when The Children’s Book was shortlisted. Nonetheless, it won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize.
Aside from writing novels, she also wrote critical studies of her fellow Dame, Iris Murdoch. She was her mentor, her friend and a significant influence in Byatt’s writing. Byatt also published short stories like Sugar and Other Stories (1987), Elementals: Stories of Fire and Ice (1998) and Little Black Book of Stories (2003). Byatt is a busy bee and writes for different publications while also standing as a judge on many literary award panels, including Booker Prize.
Byatt got first married to Ian Charles Rayner Byatt in 1959. Unfortunately, their marriage got dissolved in 1969. They had a daughter and a son. Their son died in a car accident when he was 11. Byatt also has two daughters with her second husband Peter John Duffy.
She was made a Dame of the British Empire in 1999.