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.