Possession by A. S. Byatt
Filed under: Book Reviews,General Reading — Ibis at 1:13 pm on Wednesday, April 14, 2010

From the publisher:
Possession, for which Byatt won England”s prestigious Booker Prize, was praised by critics on both sides of the Atlantic when it was first published in 1990. ‘On academic rivalry and obsession, Byatt is delicious. On the nature of possession–the lover by the beloved, the biographer by his subject–she is profound,’ said The Sunday Times (London). The New Yorker dubbed it ‘more fun to read than The Name of the Rose . . . Its prankish verve [and] monstrous richness of detail [make for] a one-woman variety show of literary styles and types.’ The novel traces a pair of young academics–Roland Michell and Maud Bailey–as they uncover a clandestine love affair between two long-dead Victorian poets. Interwoven in a mesmerizing pastiche are love letters and fairytales, extracts from biographies and scholarly accounts, creating a sensuous and utterly delightful novel of ideas and passions.”

My thoughts:
At first glance, this looked like exactly the type of book I love. It has all the right elements: a complex plot (actually multiple plots), partly in the past (Victorian England), partly in the more recent past (1986), somewhat interesting characters, academia and erudition, a collage of styles (including “quoted” Victorian poetry, journals, and letters), discussions of symbolism, and a mystery at the heart.

It’s not often that a book like that wins a Booker and gets glowing reviews, so I was prepared for a masterpiece. I was prepared for this one to make my all-time favourites list. Objectively speaking, it is undoubtedly the former, but sadly it didn’t achieve the latter. I’m not exactly sure why. Perhaps when it comes down to it, I didn’t really care for any of the characters. They all seemed so unlikeable and self-absorbed. I also found much of the poetry tedious and rather uninteresting. I did enjoy the narrative variety and the setup and revelation of the mystery (though I was left at the end still wondering about one specific part of the Victorian timeline story). So, in the end, I have to say I liked it but didn’t love it.

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