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Savour this literary feast
on 28 April 2005
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.