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3.8 out of 5 stars
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3.8 out of 5 stars
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on 14 May 2017
I haven't really managed to get far into this and I am not overly excited to finish. The parts written 100 years before the majority of the story is set is the more interesting part.
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on 9 October 2014
I'm not averse to putting in effort when reading and persevering but this one is lost on me. It's trying too hard to impress and has failed to keep my interest. I made it through two thirds of this tiresome tome before giving up.
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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.
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on 25 March 2014
Oh A.S. Byatt what a clever woman you are and don't you want to let us know it! I tried honestly to get engaged with the characters and plot but could not work up any enthusiasm for either the 20C lovers or the 19C ones and gave up wading through the morass of poetry , letters and myth that offered no enjoyment to the reader and were meant only to highlight the high minded ness of the author.
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on 3 March 2006
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.
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on 27 November 2005
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.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 1 November 2009
I'm sure that A.S. Byatt would be displeased by this comparison, but halfway through 'Possession' I realised what novel it reminded me of: Dan Brown's 'The Da Vinci Code'. Not in the style of writing - it's hard to think of two books more different in that sense. I suppose you could say that both are equally bad in different ways.

'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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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 4 September 2011
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'.
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VINE VOICEon 20 February 2010
Having recently read The Children's Book, and having enjoyed it thoroughly, I decided to take a look at one of Byatt's most celebrated works Possession, some 20 years after it won the Booker Prize in 1990. It's fair to say, pardon the pun, that I have been possessed by this novel. The premise is fairly simple, 2 academics researching the lives of 2 Victorian poets stumble across a hitherto unknown romantic link between them, and follow the story. It sounds insufferably dry, and many readers have found it so, but I have been charmed and captivated by the romance of this story.

Byatt's unfolding of the poets' relationship is created via a wonderful set of cliff-hangers, caused by gaps in knowledge, that our pair of rather stiff young academic sleuths (who warm up gradually to become quite adventurous!) must fill in. These gaps are, as in the best Victorian literary fashion, satisfactorily plugged by a marvellous collection of beautifully created letters, poems and journals. A post-modern take would have all the chase and none of the answers - Possession has all the chase, and all the answers.

There's much referencing of Victorian literary devices here, particularly in the gothic ending complete with graveyard, storm and snapping tree trunks, as the past and present finally collide. The tale is also richly padded with European folklore that haunts the lives and works of the poets. Lovers of Victorian literature, mythology, and poetry will find great chunks of writing to delight them. Added to this is Byatt's own inimitable style: plenty of language (I keep a list of new vocabulary I learn from her), careful craft, and blazing erudition on whatever themes she wishes (feminism, literature, love, academia, possession/ownership to name just a few).

Byatt's are novels to get lost in, that proliferate and dance on a thousand intricate threads and themes, all wrapped up with a writerly-literary finesse. There are very few books I'm tempted to read twice, but as soon as I finished this I really wanted to pick it up and begin again. I can't offer higher praise than that.

PS: OK, skip the longer poems if you must but please don't, don't, don't skip the letters - they compose the most accomplished and romantic section of the entire novel!
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VINE VOICEon 3 December 2006
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.
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