Review: “All obsessions are dangerous” (Possession: A Romance by A. S. Byatt)

“The book was thick and black and covered with dust. Its boards were bowed and creaking; it had been maltreated in its own time…The book sprang apart, like a box, disgorging leaf after leaf of faded paper….Under page 300 lay two folded complete sheets….They were both letters in Ash’s flowing hand….

I bought Possession: A Romance, by A. S. Byatt (previously read) from the Friends of the Library. It sat on the bedside table, unopened, for a very long time, passed over by others somehow less intimidating. The sepia-tone cover suggests historical romantic – a time-mottled face and dried flowers with just hints of colour – a moody Victorian or Rossetti feel to it. The book is thick, the type small, and the paper thin. It won the 1990 Booker Prize.

The first few pages reflect the denseness I anticipated and I wonder why I continue to read. Then I become curious about draft letters researcher Roland Michell finds in the Reading Room of the London Library and about the man who “borrows” them, not to mention curiosity about their Victorian author and mysterious recipient. I recall my decade working in an English Department, the petty politics, the egos, and the ambitions. I keep reading enjoying the satirical insights, the analysis of Victorian poetry, and the sense of so much hidden in time and shadows, obscured beneath the surface of things.

Two stories weave together: a Victorian-era story of two (fictitious) poets and an illicit love, along with a contemporary pair of academic researchers thrown together by their interests and passions. In both stories, place shifts from London to Lincoln, to northern moors and to Brittany – all atmospheric. Contemporary characters inhabit the lives of the poets that possess them, like alter-egos:  “…it is the constant shape-shifting life of things long-dead but not vanished.” The past is very much alive, the boundary of time blurred. We experience Victorian angst and mores, classics and myths, legends and fairy tales against a backdrop of contemporary intrigue and suppressed desire.

The sleuths move through time and place, crossing a variety of thresholds and being restrained or repressed within others. Byatt writes, “We are defined by the lines we choose to cross or to be confined by” (431). This, perhaps, expresses the overriding theme of the novel.

Overall, Byatt has a bit of fun with stories, poems, and literary criticism and the push to publish, not to mention letters (from intellectual-to-frenzied) in which she wraps Possession. Is this a detective story wrapped in literature, or a literary story wrapped in mystery?

Possession is not a book for everyone, but for those who like period novels and sleuthing, it is a very satisfying read. Its brilliance requires thoughtful patience and a couple of summer days sitting, perhaps, on shady Victorian verandah.

 

Possession-A Romance

Available through your local bookstore, or in a different edition online: Possession

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