Possession by A. S. Byatt: A

From the back cover:
Roland Michell, a young academic assistant, has devoted his life to studying the life and works of 19th century writer Randolph Henry Ash. One day in the library, Roland opens a dusty volume and finds a provocative letter written by Ash to an unnamed woman. From that moment, Roland begins a quest for information about this mysterious person. His search will take him into the domain of Dr. Maud Bailey, a beautiful, keenly intelligent, and fiercely independent scholar. What they will discover is an unusual and unconventional love story that echoes through their own lives.

I am not a poetry fan. I only like it if I can understand it with minimal interpretation, if it doesn’t hinge on some allusion or symbolism that is absolutely impenetrable to me. There is an awful lot of poetry in Possession, and also writing about poetry, and about the way a poet sees the world. The correspondence between Ash and his unnamed woman is full of such references, and the fact that the two of them could understand and share these conversations is why they formed their special bond. Alas, the reader is somewhat alienated here. I recognize that these things made sense to and were relevant to them but I didn’t always fully fathom what they were getting at, and that was frustrating. Most of the included poems, however, are quite accessible and I found that I liked them a great deal more than I would have expected, particularly “Swammerdam,” which is about this guy.

The rest of the tale, the modern scholars who are trying to uncover what happened, their scholarly competition who are sniffing about trying to find out what Roland has discovered, and the actual interaction between Ash and the poetess, is in plain prose narrative, and unravels as quite the mystery, almost a kind of literary chase at the end. Throughout the book, modern scholars discover further letters, journals, etc., and not everyone has access to what the others have found. I liked most of these, but towards the end I was getting a little weary. “Okay, here’s some really long excerpt from a book by some supposed spiritual medium ranting about how Ash once exposed the trickery of her seance. Does it have to be six pages long?!”

Still, the sense of going from clue to clue, random small discovery leading to big information that clarifies what was unclear before, is a lot of fun. The deftness with which this is all handled, and the subtlety of some evolutions of relationships, makes this a satisfying, thoughtful, and surprisingly easy read. Highly recommended.

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  1. Have you seen the movie?

    E and I went to see it when it first came out, and I thought it was quite good. There were a couple of points that were not properly explained, and, of course, they changed some of the characters around to improve the tension, but that’s typical. (Like, Grisham’s _The Pelican Brief_ — book: middle aged overweight white guy. Movie: Denzel Washington.)

    I read the book after and enjoyed it well enough, but it’s definitely modern literary fiction. It’s a testament to how good the plot was that my attention didn’t wander off 2/3rds of the way through.

  2. I haven’t seen the movie yet, but our local library has it. I have found it hard to resist checking it out before finishing the book. After I learned Gwenyth was cast as Maud, it was hard to picture the character otherwise. What a good casting choice.

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