A. S. Byatt — Possession

This is one of my absolute all-time favorite books. Byatt is a bit of an enigma herself (I understand that her children actually refer to her as A. S. Byatt, which seems impossibly distant and quintessentially British somehow) but her writing is so wonderful. Certain books that are really, really good evoke physical sensations or images in me (for example, Harry Potter will always “taste” like the chocolate almond cookies I was eating on my twelfth birthday the first time I read it), and Possession is a fine bone white china, smooth and hard and cool and comforting under the hand.

Unsurprisingly it won the Man Booker prize when it was published. It’s the story of two academics, an unlikely pair thrown together by their respective obsessions, two long-dead Pre-Raphaelite era poets who may have had much more influence on them, and on future generations, than anyone might previously have thought. The book weaves together the letters and poems of Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte in a period-true voice (another thing that amazes me about Byatt, how she just has that Victorian tone down), and the investigations and entanglements of Roland Michell and Maud Bailey, an Ash scholar and a LaMotte scholar respectively, in the present day, as they track their idols through clues, hints, and letters.

There is so much stuffed into this book: Victorian history, love, ownership, feminism, secrets, mystery, the most gentle prods at academia (or not so gentle, I haven’t quite decided) and libraries that you could ever wish, and sincerely lovely writing and a satisfying conclusion. I have to limit myself to only re-reading this book every so often, because I don’t want to wear out its charm.

(I love it SO much that when I got up to Byatt on my bookshelf re-reading project, I took it out of the library again so I could re-read it right then, because my own copy of Possession is in the possession of my mother, who I lent it to about 6 months ago and who hasn’t returned it yet. I’m considering just buying another one and letting her have it.)


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