Possession: A Romance — A. S. Byatt

Possession is not for everyone. It’s long and rambling, taking an age to narrate the most mundane of actions, and it’s packaged in a faux-Victorian style, thankfully borrowed more from poetry than novels. But I’m not alone in loving it, and it was actually one of the earlier books on this Man Booker list I read.

The book’s plot follows a scholar, Roland Michell, as he delves into the life of the fictional poet, Randolph Henry Ash (loosely based on Robert Browning). Michell is a relatively unsuccessful academic but believes he can reverse the fortunes of his career when he discovers letters written by Ash to Christabel LaMotte (a stand-in for Christina Rossetti). He conceals the discovery of these letters and starts to investigate into the relationship. In doing so, he meets Maud Bailey, a LaMotte scholar, and their relationship develops as they continue to pursue the history between these two figures. Much of the ending will come as a surprise, and Byatt leads one to it with impressive skill, so I shall say no more here.

The novel is ambitious. The story of the poets’ relationship contains numerous parallels in that between the two scholars and Byatt crafts the book much like a detective novel, peppering the narrative with clues and suggestive details. Her control over voice is excellent, and she jumps between narration of events, journal entries written in an authentic-feeling Victorian voice, and poetry written specifically for the novel. She evidently has an extraordinarily detailed knowledge of the period and has used this knowledge to good effect. But probably the most surprising element to Possession is how funny it can be. Many moments in the novel read like satire, particularly targeted at academics, and helped to make the book a pleasure to read.

Possession is clever, it’s fun, it’s frequently surprising. Were it not for McGahern’s Amongst Women (more on this on Thursday), I would say it is thoroughly deserving of its Booker win. As it is, all I will say is that I can understand why it won.

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