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Possession: A Romance Paperback – 7 Feb 1991
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"Literary critics make natural detectives", says Maud Bailey, heroine of a mystery where the clues lurk in university libraries, old letters and dusty journals. Together with Roland Michell, a fellow academic and accidental sleuth, Maud discovers a love affair between the two Victorian writers the pair has dedicated their lives to studying: Randolph Ash, a literary great long assumed to be a devoted and faithful husband, and Christabel La Motte, a lesser- known "fairy poetess" and chaste spinster. At first, Roland and Maud's discovery threatens only to alter the direction of their research, but as they unearth the truth about the long- forgotten romance, their involvement becomes increasingly urgent and personal. Desperately concealing their purpose from competing researchers, they embark on a journey that pulls each of them from solitude and loneliness, challenges the most basic assumptions they hold about themselves, and uncovers their unique entitlement to the secret of Ash and La Motte's passion.
Winner of the 1990 Booker Prize, Possession is a gripping and compulsively readable novel. A.S. Byatt exquisitely renders a setting rich in detail and texture. Her lush imagery weaves together the dual worlds that appear throughout the novel--the worlds of the mind and the senses, of male and female, of darkness and light, of truth and imagination--into an enchanted and unforgettable tale of love and intrigue. --Lisa Whipple
"A triumphant success on every level" (Cosmopolitan)
"Teeming with more ideas than a year's worth of ordinary novels" (Spectator)
"This is a novel for every taste: a heartbreaking Victorian love story, a take-no-prisoners comedy of contemporary academic life, and an unputdownable supernatural mystery. You turn the last page feeling stunned and elated, happy to have had the chance to read it" (Washington Post)
"Possession is eloquent about the intense pleasures of reading. And, with sumptuous artistry, it provides a feast of them" (Sunday Times)
"Our best novelist" (Evening Standard)
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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.
'Possession' is a hefty, overlong, obsessively academic novel. It reads more like an English Literature dissertation in parts. The story does pick up at the very end, but the mass of turgid prose to be waded through before you get there (over 400 pages worth) is too great a price to pay. I made it through by skipping the poems and skimming most of the text - happily it's entirely possible to do so without losing any of the plot.
The story focusses on two academics in a rather dry field, who stumble upon a discovery that could revolutionise their subjects, and must then fight off various academic rivals to find out the truth. It's certainly less sensationalist and less of a thriller than Brown - in fact, mostly it's mind-numbingly dull. But certain elements are definitely held in common: the unlikely relationship between the protagonists, the two-dimensional characters, the rather pointless excursions to moderately exotic locales (i.e. anywhere that isn't a library), the increasing implausability, the improbable family connection between protagonist ancient and modern, the plot that's over-relient on coincidence and chock full of holes. There's even a showdown in a graveyard in the middle of a convenient violent storm. It's not as far fetched as the Da Vinci Code, but that doesn't make it plausible.
Reading this book has made me very glad that I gave up studying English and retained reading as my pleasure. It may be enjoyed by those who have an academic interest in literature - clearly it won the Booker Prize so it must have been liked by some readers - but I'm afraid I'm not going to pretend to have liked it just to make myself sound intellectual. It could have been told in half the number of pages and the style is ridiculously wordy and overwritten. I disliked the tedious cardboard characters and found the plot to be weak and silly. At least Dan Brown makes no pretences of dressing up his filmatic hokum as anything more profound - how the author in this case managed to fool anyone that this poorly written thriller with a lot of tedious Victoriana was worthy of the Booker Prize I'll never know. Take my advice - life's too short. Read something else.
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