41 of 43 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A flawed masterpiece
There are some good novels which are technically perfect but somehow lack the quality that gives real greatness. This novel, I think, is the opposite - a great novel with deep flaws. It is strange, but entirely apt, that it is the Victorian characters, Ash and LaMotte, who come to life vividly and grow to an almost mythic stature whilst the 20C characters never quite...
Published on 14 Oct 2000
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Absolutely painful...
First, the positives- this is obviously an extremely well-crafted novel, which combines contemporary and Victorian eras with extracts from diaries, letters and substantial poems. There's also some very good academic satire...but that's about it. With one or two exceptions, the characters never really come to life (many of them are little more than caricatures) and the...
Published on 23 May 2011 by I. R. Cragg
Most Helpful First | Newest First
41 of 43 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A flawed masterpiece,
By A Customer
There are some good novels which are technically perfect but somehow lack the quality that gives real greatness. This novel, I think, is the opposite - a great novel with deep flaws. It is strange, but entirely apt, that it is the Victorian characters, Ash and LaMotte, who come to life vividly and grow to an almost mythic stature whilst the 20C characters never quite convince and finally dwindle into a rather weak campus comedy.
The point is that it's the Victorians this book is about. I know I'm not supposed to get into debates with other reviewers but... More than one has said 'skip the poetry' and even 'skip the letters'. Please give the poetry a go and certainly read the letters. Without these, the letters especially, you won't understand Ash and LaMotte properly. When you do this lifts the book way beyond a literary detective yarn. It does need patience, which is hardly a modern virtue, but the rewards are worth it.
76 of 81 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Savour this literary feast,
This review is from: Possession: A Romance (Paperback)
I first acquired a copy of 'Possession' some fifteen years ago, and it remained on the bookshelf unread as a friend whose judgment I trust warned me that it contained reams of poetry and was generally hard work. I am now so glad that I have finally made the effort to read this wonderful book and cannot recommend it highly enough.
Let me deal first with my friend's warnings... Yes, 'Possession' does contain large amounts of poetry. It is probably possible to read, comprehend and enjoy the novel whilst skipping over all or most of the poetry, although I tend to feel that the poems are an indispensable part of the overall magic of the work. At the other extreme, there may be avid poetry readers that devote a lot of time trying to fully interpret the poems. For the record, I took a middle path of reading the poetry without being overly concerned at the references and allusions that escaped me. Although the poems are not masterpieces in themselves, they do give insights into the character of the two poets, and references in the poems are sometimes tied into developments in the main prose narrative. And most of all, they are enjoyable reading - particularly for those of us that rarely make the effort to read poetry nowadays. With regard to the second warning, 'Possession' does make significant though not impossible demands on the reader, particularly in the early stages due to the multiple plotlines and range of new characters. I read the 500-odd pages in just under two days (rescheduling a couple of social activities!) and would recommend such intensive reading for those that can make the time; conversely, I suggest that this is not a book that can be approached as a casual read over a long period of time.
The plotline to 'Possession: A Romance' is fairly straightforward: two academics, Roland Michell and Maud Bailey follow their interests in two Victorian poets, Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte respectively, to discover, after much sleuthing and examination of the Victorians' letters and poems, that the two poets were lovers - and in the process allow themselves to fall in love themselves despite their anxieties over doing so in this post-modern world. However, A.S. Byatt's Booker-winning masterpiece is so much more than this précis suggests... The subtitle of 'Possession' is 'a Romance', and the novel commences with a quotation informing the reader that a romance allows a writer 'a certain lassitude, both as to its fashion and material'. A.S. Byatt certainly takes such liberties, leading the reader on all manner of journeys with an infectiously exuberant writing style that meant that I, for one, was willing to be transported anywhere her whim dictated... 'Possession: A Romance' defies simple pigeon-holing into a particular genre: it is a historical novel and a detective novel and a romantic novel rolled into one, with lots of insights into (and digs at the expense of) academia, postmodernism and feminism. To top it off, 'Possession' is a feast for lovers of language, and contains a cast of interesting, credible and fully developed characters. For those willing to devote the required time and effort, I cannot recommend this novel highly enough.
31 of 34 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A major tour de force,
By A Customer
Being a greedy reader, I feel confident to say that this is one of the best books I've read - ever! It has so many levels of interpretation and such a playful interweaving of detective novel with romantic novel with academic novel with gothic novel with historical novel with feminist novel with... that I think it can appeal to almost any reader! I found the past love story deeply moving - and you can only grasp it thoroughly if you read Ash and LaMotte's letters. I enjoyed the rendering of this love affair so much that I can't help saying with Roland and Maude Bailey, the contemporary scholars that have unearthed this relationship and will re-live it, that in our postmodern times we are deeply suspicious of love and desire. I also loved one of the long poems, «Melusina», especially the part that mentions how women's power was ultimately undermined through men's fear. I can't help feeling that this is still true in our time! I recommend this book to anyone who is patient enough to appreciate taking the time to discover things by themselves and not being told right out. It's worth the effort, because, as one of the characters says, there are readings by which you can know what has been there all the time and make you understand it, see it, in a different light. This is certainly the case!
12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A literary gem,
This review is from: Possession (Modern Library) (Hardcover)
This novel on the surface is rather pleased with itself; but persevere with it and you will uncover a deeply touching and beautifully written love story. Roland and Maud discover some love letters by the poet Ash, and several to him. They set off on a physical journey tracing the steps of the lovers but also an emotional one too: confronting their own fears and pasts, and uncovering their own family secrets.
A S Byatt has written the story in a series of essays, poems, letters, and straightforward narrative. Don't let this put you off; I would encourage you to read the book first in the easier-to-read version (letters and narrative) and then reread it in its entireity so you can pick up on all the little clues, metaphors and references which you will have missed on the first reading. The novel can be a little hardgoing but like the best in life it is truly worth it. A heartbreaking story of the past entwines with the joyous potential of the future, expertly structured and lovingly written.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Absolutely painful...,
This review is from: Possession: a Romance (Vintage Booker) (Paperback)
First, the positives- this is obviously an extremely well-crafted novel, which combines contemporary and Victorian eras with extracts from diaries, letters and substantial poems. There's also some very good academic satire...but that's about it. With one or two exceptions, the characters never really come to life (many of them are little more than caricatures) and the novel never really seems to make up its mind what it's about. I really wanted to like it, and in some ways perhaps it deserved it, but in the end I only finished it out of spite and not wanting the wretched thing to beat me!
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Not as coherent as The Children's Book,
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This is several stories in one novel: a contemporary love story; a Victorian love-story; a "contemporaries discover about the Victorians" story; plus some pastiches of (a) Victorian writing - lyric poetry, narrative poetry, dramatic monologues, journals, letters and (b) contemporary literary studies and literary criticism. And on top of that, various myths and fairy stories embodied particularly in the Victorian pastiche.
For me it did not add up in the way that I believe the Children's Book does (which incidentally I would very strongly recommend). Some of the parts are excellent. But if I want to read Victorian poetry I will be digging out my copy of the New Oxford Book Of Victorian Verse (which incidentally I would also very strongly recommend) and not this novel. But the book will deliver a very enjoyable reading experience if you skim/skip the Victorian verse and don't worry too much about the myth!...
11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars It will possess you too!,
This book is truly brilliant. To merge academia, mystery and romance is not an easy task, but A.S.Byatt has pulled it off incredibly well. The characters are all fully three dimensional, even the liminal ones, and the poetry and letters supposedly from the pen of the Victorian poets Randolph and Christabel, are superbly, passionately and intellectually written. They are worth study themselves, considering the fact that A.S.Byatt is both a poet and literary critic and has filled them with meaning I was too much in a hurry to analyse properly. Maybe on a second reading. As a lit crit myself, I found this novel perfectly illustrated the way certain writers possess the imagination of modern readers. It made me fall in love with my subject all over again. To realise the passion, the despair, the pain behind poetry written for reasons you might never realise until a secret hoard of letters is unearthed is a thrilling premise. I found myself crying at the end of this beautiful, beautiful novel; what a marvellous, yet tragic ending. Possession definitely warrants multiple readings in order to pick up loose ends and strands you may have missed on the first time round. I do intend to re read it, taking more time over it and analysing the poems more deeply. Now I know the end, I will not need to read it so manically! This is worth a good few weeks, if you can drag it out for that long, of anyone's time. It is heavy going at certain points, and those not accustomed to reading poetry may be tempted to skip the poems (don't! They provide vital clues and are works of literary genius in their own right!) but savour every moment of it and you cannot fail to be delighted, saddened and possessed with a passion for these characters yourself.
16 of 18 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Victoriana, mon amour,
There are many, many good things to say about this book. The plot revolving around intrigues in the world of present-day academia, and the race to piece together a previously unknown romantic episode in the life of a major Victorian poet, is complex, emotionally involving and beautifully told by the use of poems, letters and episodes from the lives of the various people, past and present, involved in the story. The characters, from the Victorian poets Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel Lamotte, through to the modern day pairing of Maud Bailey and Roland Michell, are all beautifully drawn and fleshed-out, and the quality of Byatt's writing (there is one description of a snow-covered landscape which is so exquisitely gorgeous and well-written I had to read it through several times in a row) is just beautiful.
So far so good but what, for me personally, above and beyond all of this makes the book stand out is the sheer skill with which Byatt gets inside the thoughts, beliefs and desires of the Victorian world. The mid-to-late Victorain ideas concerning Darwinism, religion, the elaborate artificial dance of courtship men and women must perform in their emotional affairs and the social and financial worlds in which they live is portrayed with such sensitivity and careful consideration that the correspondence between Ash and Lamotte reads like an authentic account from the Victorian age. This isn't just a case of an author having done his or her research into dates and places, this is an author actually getting into the mindset of people from over one hundred years ago. It's a dazzling achievement.
Byatt is obviously a very gifted writer but in Possession she really does come up with something truly magical. Lovers of the weird and wonderful will find plenty to admire - Christabel Lamotte tells tales of shape-shifting, strange creatures and hauntings in drafty, isolated castles to make the blood run cold - as will those who like thought-provoking fiction about the way the past and the present are never quite so far apart as they may seem. It's a challenging book, and one which rewards repeated readings, but it does have the narrative drive of a thriller. A fantastic achievement and, very definitely, well worth a look.
8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Turgid,
This book won the Booker for its vaunting ambition. A.S. Byatt not only created a novel but she also created a considerable number of poems and other works from not one but two fictional subjects of the novel, a 19th century poet, historian and gentleman scientist called Randolph Ash and his sometime mistress, Christabel La Motte. Herein lies the problem. Byatt reproduces these works - some of which span many pages, but while illustrating her cleverness they add little to the plot, and taken at face value are not as striking or as "original" as the works of poets on whom her own protagonists are based. Ash is a kind of amalgam of characters like Tennyson, Coleridge and perhaps Ruskin. Creating these epics might have been necessary to some extent to feed some of the plot details but reproducing them in full is a massive conceit. Everyone buying the book does so to read the plot. The poetry is a plot device, no more. Moreover Byatt's undoubted skills as a writer are continually on show, resulting in that great trap of vanity that many writers fall into, namely that the poetry and writing purporting to come from her protagonists actually all end up reading reading the same. They become reminders that it is still just A.S Byatt. Worse, the supposed translated diary of LaMotte's French cousin also reads in exactly the same formal high english style of the other players, all of whom never let the perfection of their written and spoken english fall for a second. We the readers must never be allowed to forget Byatt's eloquence, even of it means all the characters dancing to exactly the same tune. The character's believability is sacrificed on the bonfire of Byatt's academic vanity.
Of course not everything fails. The modern story is beautifully told, even if the great storm at the end was an unnecessary and melodramatic deux et machina. Also beautifully executed are the unfolding relationships both in the current story and the unfolding historical drama behind it. When freed from the shackles of formality the main characters well rounded, sympathetic, including Ash himself who could have been made into a monster but wasn't, which is another big plus point.
My edition ran to around 500 pages. Stripping out 100 pages of totally superfluous and boring fictional and stilted poetry would gain at least another star in my rating and letting the historic characters breathe in natural language (especially Sabine's translated journal) would gain another. I was not impressed.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An Intellectual Mystery,
Possession was Byatt's first 'historical' novel (in fact half-historical, half present-day) and also her first mystery novel. All credit to her, she succeeds well on both counts. The historical story: of the love-affair between the Browningesque/Tennyson-esque epic poet Randolph Henry Ash and the half-French poet and children's writer Christabel La Motte, is immaculately researched. And the modern-day part of the story, in which young academics Roland and Maud uncover Ash and LaMotte's affair, and in the mean time begin to fall in love with each other, is certainly intriguing. This novel can take a little getting into but by the last third (at least on first reading) it is an intriguing mystery-story, with the atmosphere of a pageturner. And on a second reading it is still very readable and enjoyable; however, one begins to notice some of the novel's more irritating aspects once you know the solution to the mystery. For one thing, the endless reams (close on 100 pages) of pastiche poetry don't really work. Yes, Byatt is extremely clever to be able to write pastiche poetry at all (most of us couldn't!) but even so, Ash sounds very much like Robert Browning on a bad day, while LaMotte's tortured little verses sound like a combination of Christina Rossetti and Emily Dickinson desperately seeking inspiration. For a while, I toyed with the idea that perhaps Byatt meant neither of the writers to be particularly good, and that the joke was on the 20th-century academics who revered them so much, but I doubt in fact this was the case; it's just very hard to reproduce the work of a 'great' poet if one is a good novelist but not a 'great' poet oneself. Byatt also had a few problems making the 19th-century dialogue flow convincingly, particularly when quoting her characters' letters and journals: as another reviewer has noted, many of the Victorian characters, including the simple Breton girl Sabine, ended up sounding very high-flown, and sometimes a bit stilted. It's very difficult to convincingly replicate speech from another era; one can understand why in 'Wolf Hall' Hilary Mantel had her characters all speak in basically 'modern' English. Also, I felt (particularly after a third read of this novel) that Byatt should have given more space to her modern story, cutting quite a lot of the Ash/La Motte poetry. As it is, many of the older academics come across as 'types': the villainous wealthy American who wants to 'possess' everything of his favourite poet and enjoys visits to classy prostitutes instead of a relationship; the 'mouthy' American lesbian-feminist; the crusty old Scots academic devoted to scholarship. And we never know quite enough about Roland and Maud, how they fall in love or indeed what might happen to them after they've solved the Ash/LaMotte mystery.
'Possession' is in many ways a magnificent achievement, but one can't help feeling that it could have done with a little more interest in the characters as human beings, and less academic 'cleverness'.
Most Helpful First | Newest First
Possession: A Romance by A S Byatt (Paperback - 1991)
Used & New from: £0.01