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Review: Possession, A.S. Byatt

When Roland Mitchell comes across a letter from Randolph Henry Ash to Christabel La Motte in the course of regular research, he is so excited that he takes the letter home with him.  Randolph Henry Ash, a nineteenth-century poet, is the subject of Roland’s life work so far, and this new discovery could reveal untold new information about his character. Teaming up with Maud Bailey, who is one of Christabel’s descendants and knows all there is to know about her, they seek to discover the true nature of their relationship, what happened, and why, before the other scholars can do so.  Interspersed with their research are poems, letters, and journal entries by the historical characters, shedding light on their minds and hearts as Roland and Maud’s own search leads to similar questions in their lives.

If this book hadn’t been published when I was four years old, I would have sworn that Byatt wrote it with me in mind.  It is so perfectly attuned to everything that I love that it’s almost ridiculous.  All of my actual academic work has been biographical, and as a result I can understand completely their compulsion to know first, to know best, to possess their subject as no one else can or will.  I adore Victorian literature.  If it was written in the nineteenth century by a British person, I probably love it, and I can’t tell you why, but it’s true.  As a result, there is just no way I couldn’t love this book, and I’m beyond glad that I finally got around to reading it after it sat on my shelf for more than a year.

Perhaps what I loved most about it was the dual set of discoveries that goes on throughout the course of the novel.  As Maud and Roland begin to unearth the truth of the relationship between Ash and La Motte, their own lives become clearer to them.  As a result, we have a fantastic intertwining of stunning and moving character development in two different centuries, with emotions on both halves of the story that feel real.  At times, the story is heartbreaking.  The ending, where all this goes, is stunning; the book just gets better and better as the reader goes on.  I really can’t express how it took my breath away.  All I can say is that it was one of those books that makes all the others worth reading just to get to this one.

If I had any problem with Possession, it probably would have been the poetry.  I’m not a huge fan of poetry, so I did expect it to slow me down.  Somehow, though, it worked here.  Maybe it’s because I was purposely reading slower and could absorb the meaning more, but I loved how it completely fleshed out the way these characters were feeling without explicitly saying anything.  Reading the literature that they wrote in addition to their thoughts made Ash and La Motte even more real to me (and that’s saying something considering they’re fictional).  It added a whole new layer of depth.  If I had been speeding through the book, I would have missed it.  Byatt has serious talent.

If you love literature, history, biography, poetry, any of these things, this is not a book to be missed.  There is a reason it won the Booker prize and I’m thrilled I finally found another winner that matches my adoration of The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro.  Possession has firmly earned itself a spot on my favorites list and I look forward to rereadings of it in the future.

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15 comments to Review: Possession, A.S. Byatt

  • Kay

    I’ve always wanted to try something by Byatt (probably Possession, or the latest “Children’s book”), but I’ve always been a little “scared” by it. It sounds fascinating, but I’ve heard many times that Byatt is difficult to read.

    I’m glad to hear you liked it though! :)

  • I really loved The Remains of the Day, too. Possession I loved, too, but not as much as the Ishiguro. I’m so excited to read Byatt’s new book, are you going to read it?

  • I generally don’t understand poetry, so this may not be the book for me.

  • I am glad (until recently) I wasn’t the only person that had not read this book…

  • I’m so glad you like Possession – it’s one of my favorites (and because I wasn’t strong in poetry, I actually though LaMotte and Ash were real the first time I read Possession – true story! :D )

  • i have the book, but i haven’t read it yet. I have seen the movie however and i really enjoyed it. I know they changed several parts from the book (according to my history prof) but I really enjoyed Christobel and Randolph’s story. Jennifer Ehle (Pride & Prejudice) and Jeremy Northam play those parts while Gwenyth Platrow and Aaron Eckhart are their modern counterparts. The ending to me is really sad.

  • I loved your review, Meghan! You highlighted so much of what I love about this book. I think it’s time for a reread.

    I’m currently reading The Children’s Book, and although I’m only a little over halfway through and fear saying this and jinxing it *whispers* I think I may have a new favourite Byatt.

  • I’m shocked it took you this long to read it! It is definitely right up your alley. :)

  • I really need to make time to reread this. It’s one of the few books I sold and later repurchased. I originally passed it on because of the faux-19th century poetry, but I found that the rest of the story just wouldn’t get out of my head.

  • I am so happy you liked Possession! I think it’s time for me to reread it as well. It’s been a few years.

  • I read this a couple of years ago and was crazy about it. I thought the plot and characterizations were brilliant and though I got a little muddled in the poetry, the book remains a favorite. I have stickies all through my copy, just in case I want to look back at some of the more memorable prose. I am really glad you enjoyed this one!

  • This is just my favourite book ever. Thanks for a beautiful review!
    .-= Elise´s last blog ..Book Review: The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters =-.

  • I loved “Possession,” though I loved the Victorian romance far more than the contemporary one. I love “The Remains of the Day,” too. I agree with the poster above me and think “The Little Stranger” is a fantastic book. It’s not my favorite. That honor goes to Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina,” but I loved “The Little Stranger” and think Waters is a fantastic writer.
    Gabrielle Renoir-Large´s last post …Today in Literary History – Leo Tolstoy Publishes War and Peace

  • […] Medieval Bookworm has a fantastic review of one of my all-time-favorite books, Possession by A.S. Byatt […]