Possession, by A.S. Byatt

>> Friday, December 17, 2004

When I first received my copy of A.S. Byatt's Possession and leafed through it, I must confess I found it a bit intimidating, especially because the first thing I saw when I opened the book at random was long pages of poetry. It's quite embarrassing, really, but I have huge difficulties reading poetry in English. The strange thing is, I have absolutely no problem with the most convoluted prose styles in that language, and I do just fine with poetry in Spanish, but poetry in English... it's like my brain closes down.

"Literary critics make natural detectives," says Maud Bailey, heroine of a mystery where the clues lurk in university libraries, old letters, and dusty journals. Together with Roland Michell, a fellow academic and accidental sleuth, Maud discovers a love affair between the two Victorian writers the pair has dedicated their lives to studying: Randolph Ash, a literary great long assumed to be a devoted and faithful husband, and Christabel La Motte, a lesser-known "fairy poetess" and chaste spinster. At first, Roland and Maud's discovery threatens only to alter the direction of their research, but as they unearth the truth about the long-forgotten romance, their involvement becomes increasingly urgent and personal. Desperately concealing their purpose from competing researchers, they embark on a journey that pulls each of them from solitude and loneliness, challenges the most basic assumptions they hold about themselves, and uncovers their unique entitlement to the secret of Ash and La Motte's passion.
It took me a while to read Possession, not because it was bad, not at all, simply because I read it very, very slowly, savouring every page, never allowing myself to read more than 20 or so pages in a row. My grade would be an A-

This was a type of book I love, the story within a story, with a contemporary couple investigating a past love story while they live out their (very subtle) own. It's a romantic novel and a very fine mystery, too, especially because the whole investigation was so tremendously fascinating.

While the story was great, the best thing about the book was actually the language. Byatt is herself the "Great Ventriloquist" she calls Randolph Henry Ash, giving a different voice to each of her characters, each of whom has a very distinctive writing style.

I managed to hold off from watching the movie while I was reading, but now that I'm finished I'm running for Blockbuster! I really don't like Gwyneth Paltrow at all, but what the hell.


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