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A finely crafted masterpiece from a tapestry of subgenres
on September 5, 2002
A S Byatt's Booker Prize winning novel, "Possession", isn't just the literary sourcebook for the current movie of the same name. It is SERIOUS LITERATURE for SERIOUS READERS, so Movie Tie-In fans expecting a compactly written synopsis of the film are well advised to stay away. But if you're a literature aficionado, and wading knee deep in long flowery poems, obscure verses, beautifully but wordily written letters and journal entries isn't a problem or better still, your cup of tea, there's much in "Possession" that will delight and enthrall you.
Subtitled "A Romance", "Possession" is more than the coupling of an ancient with a contemporary love story, though the movie adaptation may have you believe that. Victorian poet Randolph Ash didn't just have a dirty weekend with fairy poetess Christabel LaMotte. Their secret liason did however result in an awkward outcome that should not surprise readers. In Byatt's hands, their love affair is cloaked in mystery and cerebral splendour and though it may be hard to fathom the foundation of their mutual attraction, its credibility doesn't suffer because the affair isn't played out in real time but reconstructed and deduced from fragments of evidence from the past. It's like examining a black and white print through frosted glass. As for the coupling of modern day academics Maud Bailey and Roland Mitchell, those who have read the novel but not seen the film may be surprised that their relationship has been characterised as a romance. That to me is surely the crudest way of depicting Maud's and Roland's journey of self discovery as they collaborate in their research into the murky past of Ash & LaMotte and then join up in their undertaking to secure ownership of the invaluable evidence they have uncovered.
The flowing poems and verses may be the novel's styling, the romance its subject, but "Possession" is above all a thriller and a breathtakingly exhilarating one at that. No violence, bloodletting or shootouts, only treachery of the kind practised by learned men of letters. They're all so civilised yet undeniably vicious in their scheming and stalking of one another, it's like having one's throat slit by paper. So fine and fatal. Byatt's enactment of the final scene at the graveyard, where she calls upon the elements to unleash their destructive power, is a dramatic coup de grace that would translate perfectly on screen.
A S Byatt is a difficult novelist. Not surprisingly, "Possession" - her grand opus - doesn't make easy reading but a more finely crafted entity drawing upon a tapestry of subgenres you will not find. Truly a modern masterpiece. It'll be a tragedy if younger readers remember it as the book that inspired the film. Don't let that happen. Go read the real thing !