Possession by A. S. Byatt

I can’t resist the literary novel. I suppose there’s just a certain kind of person who likes reading books about people reading books. If you are that type of person, then you will love Possession by A.S. Byatt. It falls in neatly with other novels that take place in and around academic settings like Dorothy Sayers’s Gaudy Night or Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. Like those other, Possession centers on a mystery though it is officially subtitled “A Romance.”

Roland Mitchell is a minor scholar working part time for a researcher exploring the works of Victorian poet Randolph Henry Ash. Roland is extremely intelligent and dedicated to his work but lacks what we Americans would call “gumption.” All this changes however, when he finds in a copy of a book belonging to Ash, two unfinished letters to a mysterious lady. He impulsively pockets the letters and sets out to discover the identity of this belle dame to whom the respectable and erstwhile happily married poet was writing. He soon crosses paths with Maud Bailey, a feminist scholar working on another obscure English Victorian poet, Christabel LaMotte, who just may be Ash’s elusive lady. Together the two determine to unravel the mystery of a relationship unknown to anyone for a hundred fifty years. Of course, there are academic and romantic rivalries that threaten to derail the investigation and an ongoing race for any bits of evidence that can be had.

Byatt alternates her narrative between the exploration of our main protagonists, Roland and Maud, and the letters and journals of Ash and LaMotte, allowing the reader to participate in the investigation as well as the characters. I love books like this if they are done well, and this is done very well. My only complaint is that there are exactly three sections of the book in which the author directly narrates events in the 1800s, unmediated by documents. For me, this seems like cheating, and I would prefer to know exactly what the characters in the book have discovered and no more. The way she has set up the narrative does not lend itself to those omniscient excursions into the past. In fact, I would say the strength of the book lies in the revelation of how much we think we know of the past based on so little information.

If you like books and academic settings, then you’ll enjoy Possession. If everything I’ve just said sounds incredibly boring to you, then you  may want to give it a pass. What else can be said for this book? It’s a literary novel that questions how much we understand of literature, a postmodern book that pokes fun at postmodernity, a feminist critique that parodies feminist critiques, and, yes, I suppose too, A Romance.

4/5 stars

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