A Book Ian Likes: Possession by A. S. Byatt

I’ve always loved an enigmatic layered title. My own writing has often been given titles that convey multiple meanings or make obscure puns, mostly for my own amusement. A. S. Byatt’s novel, Possession, is full of these layers, puns, levels and references to things past and current. And that’s just in the title.

It’s the story of a treasure hunt: Roland Michell discovers a pair of letters written by Randolph Ash, an acclaimed and loved poet of the Victorian era, to an unknown woman. Through research and connections (the literary academic world is small, so coincidence runs rampant through this book, but only occasionally feels forced) he discovers that the woman is Christabel LaMotte, another poet, contemporary to Ash but with very few connections to him.

Roland is joined on his quest by Dr Maud Bailey and they soon confirm and prove the connection between Ash and LaMotte but they are held back by their commitment to their work, their colleagues, friends, lovers… but mostly to the story they are unfolding, a story told through letters, journals and poetry.

It’s an amazing story and Dr Byatt has taken great pains to ensure that every part of it is meticulously written and prepared. The poetry is an authentic pastiche of the period, with two distinct voices (Ash and LaMotte) as well as containing many of the themes and concerns of the day. It’s also good poetry. The modern-day story of Roland and Maud (and if you can think of more fitting names in a novel about romance, regrets and quests, I would love to hear them!) is also compelling as we find them as torn by their situation as Randolph and Christabel were a century or more before them.

And for a literary/ historical treasure hunt, the stakes are refreshingly small. This is no Da Vinci Code or Foucault’s Pendulum where secret knowledge to determine the future of the world is at stake: rather, it concerns the reputations of two people long-dead and how best to reveal that information (if at all) and how it will affect their descendants and scholarship in the field.

This is a long-term favourite of mine: I first read it after it won the Booker Prize (I’m not as big a fan or follower of prizes as I once was but they are often a reasonable judge of some kind of quality, as well as ensuring that you don’t have to search too hard to find someone else to discuss a book with), then reread it as a set text in my final year at university, then reread it at regular-ish intervals after that. In our house, I get mocked mercilessly whenever I read one of Byatt’s novels because I have to put them down every now and then to have a think about things, or go and look something up, so I spend a lot of time not actually reading an engrossing novel, usually with a faraway look on my face. It’s a novel that offers more resonance and meaning the further you dig into it and the more familiar you become with the story. And the story itself overlaps and turns about on its own tail, giving clues and nuggets of meaning and providing twists and surprises as well as being full of characters to cheer for and cry with. It can be hard work and it can be frustrating but like all puzzles, solving it – or getting the key piece that makes other bits fit around it – is a real pleasure.

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