BOOK REVIEW: Possession by A.S. Byatt

Roland Mitchell is a literally scholar focused exclusively on the works of Victorian poet Roland Ash. He works for Professor Blackadder in a mostly unpaid position and lives in a mouldering flat in a miserable and distant relationship with his girlfriend, Val… not that he’d notice.

When Roland finds some of Ash’s personal papers in a reference book he is overcome by the sudden urge to take them rather than declare and catalogue them. Within these papers is an abortive letter clearly meant for a woman. After a bit of detective work, Roland comes to the suspicion that the woman in question might be Christabel La Motte, a minor poetess well loved by certain feminist researchers so he decides to get into contact with Dr Maud Bailey, a specialist on La Motte.

As the two investigate further they unearth a complicated, fascinating and somewhat tragic story that will change everything they thought to be true about their favourite subjects, but they’re not the only ones who are interested in Ash and La Motte’s interwoven pasts and it’s not long before their secret is under threat from various angles.

I am not going to lie… it took me a long old time to get into Possession. It is dense, has lots of characters and is packed with loads and loads and loads of poetry. None of this is necessarily a bad thing but in order to appreciate this novel on every level it was clearly intended to be appreciated on you would probably have to read it several times and take it apart in a semi-professional manner. Considering that I have the concentration span of a gnat at the moment and I mostly read on the train, I can’t say that I have done any kind of in-depth analysis.

However, Ash and La Motte’s story is so engrossing that it didn’t really matter than much that I didn’t get all the details and intertextuality. I just really enjoyed the slowly unfolding mystery. Roland and Maud are also pretty interesting characters, although not always all that likeable, and the side characters are well enough developed if you can keep all their names straight.

I have to mention what an apt title Possession is. It sums up all the key themes of the novel – possession of another, possession of oneself, possession of personal things, possession of secrets and stories, possession of the past, possession of someone else’s things after they’ve died are all covered in a fascinating and thought-provoking way.

This is not an easy read and I would not recommend it to anyone who isn’t somewhat interested in literature or particularly Victorian literature but if you have the time to become immersed this rather long read is very rewarding. 4/5

As an aside there seems to be a 2002 film made based on the novel starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Aaron Eckhart in the lead roles. It sounds absolutely dire and as if the narrative has been butchered. Has anyone seen it?

2 Comments

  1. I loved this book! it actually one of my favorites. I studied British Literature though so the idea of academic scholarship as being exciting resonated with me. Plus, I was familiar with Rossetti/Barrett-Browning, so my familiarity with their biographies really enhanced my enjoyment of the book. I totally just skimmed the poetry to be honest. ha ha!

    1. That would be the ideal background to read it with. The poetry is so heavy. I think if you had a week to analyse each poem it would be amazing but the story is still very enjoyable without it.

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