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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 !
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on April 10, 2002
Possession is probably the most difficult but unique book I have ever read. A.S. Byatt is obviously very talented and much deserving of the Booker Prize. Possession is truly a tour-de-force of many facets, although the writing style and complexity of the story may be a bit much for some.
Roland Michell, an academic and researcher of the 19th century poet, Randolph Henry Ash, has stumbled across something that could change the very foundation of his research: two drafts of a letter that Ash sent to a mysterious woman, who later is found to be another poet, Christabel LaMotte. Roland enlists the help of the LaMotte scholar, Maud Bailey, to fit the puzzle pieces together. The fact that Ash is married and LaMotte a supposed lesbian and feminist makes this journey of discovery one that will change the face of history as they've known it. And as their research takes them further along, the mystery and suspense builds, letter by letter, until the fascinating climax at the novel's end.
This book, regardless of its stunning display of talent, will not be for everyone. It took me on a roller coaster ride throughout with its high and low points as my interest in the story waxed and waned. Interspersed with poetry, diary entries, letters, and passages from books makes Possession a very unique and creative novel; however, these things which make it unique also has the capacity to tear it down -- some of the poetry could have been left out, and the letters, albeit important to the story, were at times laborous.
Possession is a literature buff's dream novel. Reader's who enjoy 19th century British literature and can actually understand poetry of that century will get more out of this novel than I did. Throughout my reading, my rating hovered between 3 and 4 stars, but decided to round up simply for the fact that Possession is truly a novel of dynamic proportions. It'll just take me a second read-around to understand it better.
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on April 1, 2002
After a failed attempt to read Possession ten years ago, I finally managed to trudge through it for the sake of my monthly book club. Apparently, not much has changed for me in ten years because I hated the book then, and I hate the book now. I say "hate" because I cannot stand to see a potentially great storyline overwhelmed by useless (and completely boring) details.
The poetry is horrible. The characters are flat. The diaries are completely unnecessary, with exception of a few sentences here and there of importance. Everyone I talk to claims to have skimmed or skipped over the superfluous parts of the book. I'm sorry, but anything I have to skim or skip for the sake of finding the plot or characterizations isn't a novel, it's homework. (And rather than finding that "challenging," I just find it annoying...a challenging read does not have to be tedious.)
I think what bothers me the most is that A.S. Byatt believed she had the creative talent to pull this off. I was thoroughly unconvinced that the poetry in the book was created by "great" poets worthy of the adoration and examination given by the modern-day characters in the book. Perhaps that is part of the satire, but if it is, it is not compelling enough to keep me interested.
The book has no flow to it and actually reads like a critic wrote it. It is dry and egotistical. I felt like I was back in undergraduate English classes being forced to read the arrogant interpretations of great literature by critics--only in this case, the great literature is missing.
Similar to religious zealots who believe there is only one way to interpret the bible, critics believe that they are somehow able to crawl into the minds of great writers so they have the definitive understanding of their works. While opinions and research are necessary to promote debate, if one believes a critic's interpretation to be fact, the literature suffers. Byatt seems to want to make fun of this, but she fails.
Honestly, I wish Byatt would recognize her limits and let a good writer handle her stories. Possession would be a much more compelling read without the weight of the useless junk Byatt forces the reader to skip.
But, to borrow from Dennis Miller....This is just my opinion, I could be wrong.
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on October 22, 2007
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. Byatt -- sister of award winning novelist Margaret Drabble -- tells a complex story within a story, moving back and forth between modern-day scholars Roland Michell and Maud Bailey, and the fictional Victorian poets who are the subjects of their research.

Victorian literature can seem like a dry and rocky road, but Byatt foreshadows and advances her story with the poetry, letters and journals of the Victorian pair, whose love affair is revealed as the research progresses. From simple lyric poems ("They say that women change: 'tis so: but you / Are ever-constant in your changefulness ...") to complex narrative poems and stories, they are well integrated with the story, though sometimes lengthy. The Victorian scene comes to life most successfully, and it's astonishing how fluently Byatt moves not just from present to past, but among the many different literary forms of the two Victorians.

The story within a story, or more specifically the unraveling of a mystery from the past, is a popular device. It's been used in Josephine Tey's DAUGHTER OF TIME, THE MOONSTONE by Wilkie Collins, THE NAME OF THE ROSE by Umberto Eco; and more recently, THE DANTE CLUB and THE POE SHADOW by Matthew Pearl, THE RULE OF FOUR by Caldwell and Thomason, even Dan Brown's blockbuster THE DA VINCI CODE. Byatt weaves her two stories together beautifully: POSSESSION may be the standard by which to judge this type of book, as both stories are richly developed and rooted in the idiom of their time. The Victorian imagery reveals the love affair between the poets, and eventually between Roland and Maud, with its typical mix of emotion and restraint. The modern story satirizes the British academic scene.

POSSESSION may not be the easiest book I ever read, but it's among the most rewarding. If you haven't read it in the many years since it was first published, then I recommend it to you.
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on May 1, 2000
A.S. Byatt must have written this book with Booker-Prize intentions. This is a book for people who like to be able to say they read "Literature," and like to pat themselves on the back for catching all the connections and overdone allusions.
I'll agree with many that she is an extremely talented writer. But, while her books are well-written and witty, they aren't necessarily moving or of the life-altering sort. I guess I just felt she tried too hard to assure us how smart she (and we) are rather than show us a unique portrait of humanity or elicit emotional responses other than a "chuckle" for catching all the wittiness.
Despite my negative remarks, I can appreciate Byatt's talent and knowledge of the romance (not the kind you pick up at the grocery store) genre. I read it for a class and it did spark quite a bit of discussion. I recommend reading it when you want to feel smart, and don't have a "must read" book on your to-read pile. Then you can say you've read it.
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on February 29, 2000
I have found that this book tends to really draw responses at either end of the spectrum. People either hate it or love it. I hated it. Just as several other readers wrote, I could not get into the characters. It was torturous trying to finish this huge book about people I could not connect with. One other reviewer wrote that this book is for literary intellectual types. Not true. I am what most people would call a literary intellectual type, and I though this book was awful. But, I do know several people who loved it, and if you are the type who finds the ivory tower of academia romantic, then this book is for you. If you would rather read a book that deals with real life, your time will be better spent reading any Alice Munro short story.
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on September 13, 2000
The poetry here is a terrible chore-- The imagined letters a horrible bore-- This woman's writing is awfully clumsy-- She uses cliches like a matronly mummsy-- Infelicitous phrases, as common as hookers-- I wonder and wonder how she won that Bookers-- and yet, and yet, its quite a good story-- as brilliant and lovely as some Morninglory-- so let me just tell ya in a voice that's stentorian yer probably better off reading some REAL Victorian!
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on June 22, 1998
This must be one of the most over-praised, over-rated pieces of "literature" I have read in years. Every word, every page practically screams out at you that this is a novel that is meant to be taken seriously. However, it fails to capture the imagination and is a masterpiece only of tedium and pretension.
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on 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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on July 29, 2000
Possession, labeled a romance, is certainly that. But it is also much, much more. The book is a tremendous undertaking of style and verve, a romance on two levels, and a bizarre detective story all rolled into one.
The main characters of Possesion are Roland Michell, a true academic and Maud Bailey, a researcher, but the stars of the book are really the long-dead R.H. Ash and Christabel LaMotte.
In Possession, Byatt gives much attention to minor detail. In fact, her detailing is so subtle that many nuances may be missed on a first reading.
Byatt's writing is beautiful and filled with simple, descriptive language and gorgeous imagery. The majority of the story is rich in both metaphor and allusion, with the following passage being a prime example: "One night they fell asleep, side by side, on Maud's bed, where they had been sharing a glass of Calvados. He slept curled against her back, a dark comma against her pale elegant phrase."
Most of the chapters in Possession begin with a fictitious work by Ash or LaMotte, but Byatt has not only written them well, she has fashioned each so that it is in keeping with the character of its fictitious author.
Ash and LaMotte are both of the Romantic period, yet Ash is more open and free than is LaMotte, who writes with obvious rhyme and rhythm. It is this--Byatt's ability to create so many different writing styles for each of her characters and fit them to the character so perfectly, that makes Possession come to life for the reader.
Possession is not a straightforward narrative, however. Much of the story is told through the letters of Ash and LaMotte, again, beautifully crafted by Byatt. It is through their letters that we really get to know Ash and LaMotte as well as Roland and Maud. The knowledge gained in the past relationship between Ash and LaMotte allows the present-day relationship between Roland and Maud to come to life.
Possession is a story of lost romantic love and, as such, it may seem, at first glance, to be just another trite book on a trite and overly-written subject. Nothing could be further from the truth. Byatt has conferred a freshness of outlook on Possession that makes it unlike any other novel of failed romance and love gone wrong.
Roland and Maud are, without a doubt, two quite ordinary people. But Byatt has given them something quite extraordinary to do. These two would-be lovers are actually on a quest, and their lives, as well as their love, seem to mirror and parallel Ash and LaMotte's in more ways than one.
But all is certainly not smooth sailing for Roland and Maud. Roland has Val, his live-in lover to deal with and Val, unlike many an "unwanted" lover is not a woman to be summarily dismissed.
What really makes Possession sparkle and sets it apart from any other typical romance is the connection Roland and Maud have to the past and to Ash and LaMotte. This adds a mystical, almost surreal, quality to the story that could have so easily turned maudlin in the hands of a writer less talented than Byatt. Byatt, however, intertwines past and present with perfection and keeps the reader spellbound with the suspension of disbelief.
A few passages containing expletives seem out of place in this otherwise dazzling novel and really seem beneath the obvious talent and ability of a first-class writer like Byatt.
Byatt has titled her novel perfectly. The word, "possession," crops out several times throughout the story: the possession of the stolen letters, the possession of the lovers to each other, the possession of the past to the present. Byatt obviously began working with the motif of possession in mind.
While certainly not of the romance genre, Possession contains enough romance to satisfy even the most voracious. The characters are creations of tremendous depth and we find it easy to love them or hate them or pity them, but never dismiss them.
The intertwining plots work on many levels and work so well that many readers will often find themselves wondering if the story is purely fiction or based in reality.
Finally, the beautiful writing captures and holds the reader's attention and adds to the fantasy that is unfolding. Although some readers might find the many letters and poems contained in this book distracting, they do enrich the story and lend a depth that would definitely be lost had Byatt failed to included them.
A finely-crafted novel of parallel lives and parallel loves, Possession is, for the most part, a lyrical look, not at what really was, but what so easily could have been.
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