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Possession [Paperback]

A.S. Byatt
4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (119 customer reviews)
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Book Description

July 27 1992
Hailed by The New York Times Book Review as "a gifted observer, able to discern the exact details that bring whole worlds into being" and "a storyteller who could keep a sultan on the edge of his throne for a thousand and one nights," A. S. Byatt writes some of the most engaging and skillful novels of our time. Time magazine calls her "a novelist of dazzling inventiveness."
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.

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"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.

Winner of the 1990 Booker Prize--the U.K.'s highest literary award--Possession is a gripping and compulsively readable novel. A.S. Byatt exquisitely renders a setting rich in detail and texture. Her lush imagery weaves together the dual worlds that appear throughout the novel--the worlds of the mind and the senses, of male and female, of darkness and light, of truth and imagination--into an enchanted and unforgettable tale of love and intrigue. --Lisa Whipple --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.

From Publishers Weekly

The English author of Still Life fuses an ambitious and wholly satisfying work, a nearly perfect novel. Two contemporary scholars, each immersed in the study of one of two Victorian poets, discover evidence of a previously unimagined relationship between their subjects: R. H. Ash and Christabel LaMotte had secretly conducted an extramarital romance. The scholars, "possessed" by their dramatic finds, cannot bring themselves to share their materials with the academic community; instead, they covertly explore clues in the poets' writings in order to reconstruct the affair and its enigmatic aftermath. Byatt persuasively interpolates the lovers' correspondence and "their" poems; the journal entries and letters of other interested parties; and modern-day scholarly analysis of the period. One of the poets is posthumously dubbed "the great ventriloquist"; because of Byatt's success in projecting diverse and distinct voices, it is tempting to apply the label to her as well. Merely to do so, however, would ignore even greater skills: her superb and perpetually surprising plotting; her fluid transposition of literary motifs to an infinite number of keys; her amusing and mercifully indirect criticism of current literary theories; and her subtle questioning of the ways readers and writers shape, and are shaped by, literature.
Copyright 1990 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

Customer Reviews

Most helpful customer reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars A Reader's Novel April 27 2002
I took out Possession twice from the library. I couldn't finish it the first time... it was so DENSE. (A very common reaction, I've since learned, when reading Possession.) But after you get over a particular section involving very long-winded letters between two Victorian poets, the story goes reeling and I ended up in tears near the end... I can still quote from the letter Christabel LaMotte wrote to Ash, a letter that never reached him.
Hell. Who DOESN'T want to have loved somebody that much?
I don't think many critics have mentioned this, but to me, the supporting characters really MAKE the book. I was touched by Byatt's knowing yet sympathetic portrayal of Ellen Ash, who very secretly wished to be a poet but became the lantern bearer for one instead, or of Dr. Beatrice Nest, a mild literary scholar working on "womanly work" when she really wants to sink her teeth into what truly makes her tick, the painter Blanche Glover and her descriptions of light and the depiction of force (the complete text of her suicide note is given at one point)... there's a very, very moving passage around the end of the book where Ellen sifts through the remains of Ash's things and decides what to do with Christabel's letter.
For the aspiring writers out there, there's an important passage on words around the end where Roland suddenly discover's he's a poet and the poems "fall like rain." I know everyone hates the poems but they are really worth reading and thinking about; if you like Emily Dickinson you'll love Christabel's poems. I hope Byatt has the full text of "Ask and Embla" somewhere.
The best thing about Possession is that it understands people who think literature MEANS something beyond being a lovely way to kill time. It understands those quiet but passionate people you see browsing in bookstores, who write reviews on Amazon.com, who, at a used bookstore, find joy in finding an out-of-print-book they've been DYING to read for years. It's a book that understands YOU.
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"The book was thick and black and covered with dust." It is not a coincidence that the first two words of this remarkable novel are, "the book." Possession is a book about books, about the study and love of literature and the intricate obsession with the lives of literary figures shared by academics, historians, and the randomly curious public. It tells the story of a quiet literary scholar, Roland Michell, who finds a lost letter from the great Victorian poet, R.H. Ash, to another famous poet of the day, Christabel LaMotte. As he is an Ash scholar, Roland takes the letter to a LaMotte scholar named Maude Bailey, and together they begin a search to uncover the relationship between the two. It is a discovery that will have repercussions in the academic world and in their own lives. If you tend to lose yourself in second-hand bookstores, are ravenously curious about the lives of the authors whose works you read, or simply love a great romantic mystery, you will love this book, which won the Booker prize, England's highest literary award.
A.S. Byatt is herself a formidable scholar of literature who left a teaching career at London College in 1983 to write full-time. One day while in the British Museum Library, she spotted a well-known Coleridge scholar. It occurred to Byatt that much of what she knew about the Romantic poet had been filtered through the mind of that scholar. She mused about the effect that such a single-minded pursuit must have on a person. "I thought," she said, "it's almost like a case of demonic possession, and I wondered - has she eaten up his life or has he eaten up hers?" She had an idea to write a book about two famous authors and two scholars who study their lives.
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1.0 out of 5 stars Potentially Interesting Story Gets Stifled Feb. 5 2001
By A. Ross
I must admit, I couldn't get past page 50 of this behemoth Booker Prize winner... and thank God! Because nothing I heard during my book group's subsequent discussion of it led me to believe I would have liked the remaining 500 pages. Byatt constructs a somewhat imaginative romance hidden within the poems of two obscure Victorian writers. All very nicely done I suppose, but it was putting me to sleep... Somewhere in the dreadful poems, faux letters, and overwritten prose, there is probably a decent story, however I saw little evidence of it, or of any characters to care about. I doubt I'll be spending any more of my precious time on earth in Byatt's tedious academic settings.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Stunning. Superb. Passionate. Engaging. March 14 2000
By Katie
Possession is not only the incredibly apt title but also the way I feel about this book. While reading it I hesitated to tell my friends about the wonderful new book that had me so enthralled. I felt as though I was with Maud and Roland while they tromped over Europe. I became as possessive about the letters as the fictitious characters themselves. The book became my three day obsession.
I have read every other review about it and I won't lie and say that the prose wasn't stilted at times. It was. The story is certainly easily transparent and I had guessed the ending of the book 175 pages before it happened.
But all of that is superfluous. I have not read a book comparable to this one in regards to pure creativity for quite some time. I admired the ingenuity of Ms. Byatt with every turn of the page. She not only created believable characters, but she created a literary history that spanned nearly two hundred years. From nothing Ms. Byatt created distinctively different poetry in the voice of two, fictitious, Victorian poets. She also created love letters between the two. She created fictitious literary analyses of the fictitious poetry. For that feat alone, I admire her and this book.
And I would read it all over again, twenty times, for the simple post script which, I feel, summed up the book better than anything I could've ever imagined.
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Most recent customer reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars A riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma
POSSESSION has been on my shelf since 1991. I read it because it won the 1990 Booker Prize, and once under its spell, I've never wanted to let it go. A.S. Read more
Published on Oct. 22 2007 by Linda Bulger
5.0 out of 5 stars Forgotten passion
"Possession" is far above and beyond the kind of books usually labelled "romance." It's lushly written, with exquisite characters, great poetry and interweavings of legend and... Read more
Published on June 12 2007 by E. A Solinas
5.0 out of 5 stars Forgotten passion
"Possession" is far above and beyond the kind of books usually labelled "romance." It's lushly written, with exquisite characters, great poetry and interweavings of legend and... Read more
Published on Aug. 31 2003 by E. A Solinas
5.0 out of 5 stars only Byatt could make research sexy!
A.S. Byatt is a master and this is her master work. She is not only a brilliant storyteller and a crafter of beautiful prose but she is also a professional scholar, so she knows... Read more
Published on June 16 2003 by SusanDC
5.0 out of 5 stars A finely crafted masterpiece from a tapestry of subgenres
A S Byatt's Booker Prize winning novel, "Possession", isn't just the literary sourcebook for the current movie of the same name. Read more
Published on Sept. 5 2002
Virginia Leishman imbues her reading of this Booker Prize-winning novel with understanding and dramatic emphasis as she performs Byatt's fascinating multi level tale of literary... Read more
Published on Aug. 19 2002 by Gail Cooke
1.0 out of 5 stars What taught me that pretty covers do not pretty books make
Everyone has undoubtedly heard the maxim "Never judge a book by it's cover." It holds just as true when taken literally. Read more
Published on June 10 2002 by M. Hester
4.0 out of 5 stars Complicated but a good read
To be honest, I read Possession because my English teacher persuaded me to. I started out quite skeptical but as the book went on I became really engrosed in it. Read more
Published on May 31 2002 by "alisonbramby"
4.0 out of 5 stars A rich, textured, poetic tapestry - though somewhat tedious
A.S. Byatt has pulled off a stunning achievement with her Booker Prize-winning novel - excuse me, ROMANCE - entitled Possession. Read more
Published on May 16 2002 by Matthew Krichman
5.0 out of 5 stars Awesome
Possession is a great love story and is beautifully written. One of the best novels I've ever read.
Published on May 14 2002 by C. Baker
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