Possession – A. S. Byatt

Book # 183

Reviewer: Tall, Short & Tiny


It’s 1986, and self-proclaimed “failed” academic Roland Michell is doing some routine research work into [fictional] poet Randolph Henry Ash. He stumbles upon some previously-unread drafts of what sound like a love letter – written to someone other than Ash’s wife. As he tries to unravel the mystery behind the letter and the woman it was meant for, Roland realises that this could change the way people think about the poet, his works, and his private life. As other academics become aware of the existence of the letter, Roland is caught in a race to discover the full story, which will alter the face of academic research forever.

I had no pre-conceived ideas about this book, having heard nothing about it before, and therefore didn’t know what I was expecting…but it certainly wasn’t this. It took me a while to really get into it; I found the characters insipid and uninspiring, and the setting of the background information seemed to plod along at snails’ pace. Then suddenly, a quarter of the way through, it became a compulsive read; the plot suddenly became captivating, intriguing, beguiling…it was like reading a crime-thriller novel, and I was desperate to turn each page. I found myself – on numerous occasions – foregoing a sleep-in so I could continue reading, and my bedside lamp was turned off later and later at the opposite end of the day.

The central theme of Possession is…well…possession, in various forms – the need for people to own something, or someone. There’s the idea of possession between lovers (present in the parallel and complementary love stories in the two separate centuries – each pair seem to struggle with morality, expectation and the need for individuality, which serve to highlight their need for clarification on their position within each relationship); the need for a researcher to feel some kind of ownership over their subject (each of the main academics is desperate to be the one to unravel the story, to gain more insight into their chosen subject. They all seem to become obsessed with their missions, and in many cases, I guess obsession and possession go hand-in-hand); and the concept of ownership when it comes to historically significant discoveries – do they belong to the person who found them, or to the country in which they were found, or to the person for whom they were intended (and therefore their descendants), or to the highest bidder (this is explored throughout the entire novel – the power struggle between the academics moves beyond simply the desire for information, to the desire to possess the artefacts that are uncovered. In the end, it comes down to the law, and the resignation by all that the information can belong to only one)?

Byatt intersperses the story with chapters consisting solely of Victorian-esque poetry, all of which she wrote herself, as well as letters between the lovers and journal entries from the various 19th-Century characters. I enjoyed the first few, but then found myself flipping through these chapters to find where the story re-started – unless you have a strong liking for Victorian poetry (a la Browning and Tennyson), these seem to me to be superfluous to the central story, as the meanings are ultimately explained by the 20th-Century characters. However, her talent as a writer and as a poet are undeniable, and these poems certainly showcase that.

There were moments of predictability, but these were the result of logical thought rather than following any sort of typical formula. As the story unfolded and more information came to light, the mysteries unravelled further and it became easier to see a few steps ahead. The ending was certainly not a surprise, which gave the novel the perfect 19th-Century tie-up-all-loose-ends feel.

After some initial trepidation, I thoroughly enjoyed Possession in the end, and would be more than willing to seek out further works by Byatt for future reading. My advice to others tempted to pick up this book? Persevere, if you find it starts off slow – it’s worth it in the end.

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