Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Sunday Book: Possession - A. S. Byatt

Brilliant and interesting fiction ahoy!

Any British readers here will be aware of the massive hoo-ha (now how do you spell that?) that kicked off over this year's Booker shortlist. Critics savaged the judges for favouring 'readability' over literary excellence. I haven't read any of the shortlist - oops - so I can't comment on them but it was interesting to read a previous Booker prize winner. The 1990 Booker prize winner in fact. [I just checked the archive and I have actually read the 2009 and 1989 winners as well - 2009 awesome, 1989 not my cup of tea.] I'm going to go out on a limb and say that this single book could kick the whole of the 2011 list's arse. It is stunning.

A. S. Byatt's Possession is a piece of brilliance. It is magnificently deep without being pretentious, academic without being dry, poetic without being impenetrable, theoretical without being plot-less... There is loads of lovely plot. I love plot. Some people believe that is philistine but I would raise them Shakespeare. Willy Shakes loves a nice bit of plot. So there. Anyway, Possession is a double story - the story of contemporary academics discovering the story of two Victorian poets. Byatt's Victorians are so rounded, such complete characters that I actually had to google them to check they weren't real. Not only has Byatt written back stories and dialogue for Christabel LaMotte and Randolph Henry Ash she has written dramatic monologues, poems, letters and short stories. She has even written modern academic essays on their work. It blows my mind.

It would be easy, given this, for the Victorians to be the dominant force within this novel or romance as Byatt very specifically terms it but she balances the stories expertly. I possibly even preferred the modern story line - the apparently useless Roland Michell and the glacially beautiful Maud Bailey. The competitive world of academia is unexpectedly gripping and suspense filled! Academics slugging it out for scraps of art and history, discovering new mysteries that overturn theory, secrets and scandal, literary detectives, sneaking around in the dead of night... It is awesome. I don't remember it being like that when I was dabbling in academia but then Byatt isn't talking undergraduates, these are professional academics. Clearly it gets more exciting.

I don't think that you need any marked interest in academia or Victorian literature but maybe it helps. I did really enjoy being briefly re-emerged in that world and reading what feels like very real Victorian poetry. I think the romance and adventure and unbelievable writing will grip everyone though. Did I mention that it is a brilliant book? You should definitely pick it up if you haven't read it. If you have read it, leave a comment or email me and we can get all excited about how great it is.

Chuck x


  1. Oh how interesting - I'll have to check it out!

  2. Chuck, this is one of my all time favourite books. I read it as a teenager and fell in love with it completely. It's so evocative of the era and so immensely moving - I sobbed and sobbed at the end. The film is terrible - don't destroy the memory of the book for yourself by watching it!

  3. Oh you have sparked my interest--I have meant to read that book for ages, now I really must!

    xo Mary Jo

  4. I need to read this! When I discovered I had only ever read one Booker Prize winner ever I definitely decided I needed to read more, so you just moved this one up to the top of my reading list - thank you!

    PS What's so wrong about a book being readable anyway? That's what I want to know!