By A.S. Byatt
First Published: 1990
Review © 2009 by Stephen Roof
Genre: Modern Fiction, Literature
Possession by A. S. Byatt is an outstanding novel combining a literary detective story with a Victorian romance and a present day romance. Apparently, this much romance earned Possession the cheesy subtitle, “A Romance” which is a bit misleading since this is most certainly not a pulp romance novel. This is an ambitious work of literature where two literary academics are working to solve some intriguing mysteries in regards to a couple of well known poets of the Victorian age. They make some tantalizing discoveries and soon find themselves in a race against other, less scrupulous, scholars to uncover the mysteries first.
A.S. Byatt took on a challenging task with this novel. Here she not only writes the main story but also provides examples of writings from each of the two Victorian poets. She does a terrific job of writing in different styles as she imagines how the two famous fictional Victorian age writers would pen poems, stories, and letters. I’m not a big poetry fan so I thought the poems, sometimes as long as 8 or 10 pages, interrupted the pace of the story but this is a minor quibble.
Possession does a great job of making literary scholarship exciting and suspenseful. I suspect this kind excitement is extremely rare in the world of researching writers, their lives, and their writings. On the other hand, the fierce competition for recognition in the academic world is very easy to imagine due to the rewards at stake; career advancement and job security.
The characters in this novel are engaging and very well developed. They aren’t idealized characters but come across as real people, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. The contrast in morals between the Victorian era and present times is highlighted by the comparison between the Victorian romance and the budding romance between the two modern scholars. The Victorian romance, itself, is no simple, sordid affair but is a complicated and realistic romantic involvement with more than one unexpected twist. As in real life, love sometimes comes at a steep price.
Possession is a highly recommended novel for anyone who is willing to invest a little intellectual effort. It started off a bit slow but once this unconventional detective story picked up momentum, there was some terrific suspense, exciting discoveries, and deep emotions. For those who are interested in realistic love stories, poetry, academic life, or literary scholarship, Possession is a must read.