2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
An Intellectual Mystery,
This review is from: Possession: A Romance (Paperback)
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'.