Why You Should Read Possession (A.S Byatt)


An illustration by Rowena Dugdale for the Folio edition of Possession.

Synopsis: Two modern-day academics trail the never-seen-before letters exchanged between two prominent Victorian poets,and witness the evolution of a previously unknown relationship.In the backdrop of both stories,modern and past,obstacles arise.

Why you should read Possession:

1.The Letters
Reading a story through letters,journals and diaries is such a unique experience.These being the mediums of very intimate thoughts,we inexorably feel,upon reading them,that we are in the deepest secrecy of a romance.Moreover investigating the letters is something we do simultaneously with the academics,and as a result,we share their eagerness to unravel the truth.Also,often overlooked is the way these letters were written: they are not overly factual and contain the right amount of digression so as to preserve the metafictional nature of the novel – the characters as well as the world they live in seem more real than ever.

2.The Moving Storyline
At the heart of Possession is a romance,but one as you have never seen before.In an interview,A.S Byatt said that she doesn’t see a book as a mere means for self-expression,but rather one for exhibiting literary creation.Possession correlates with this idea of hers,as it is formidably and very intelligently written; she makes use of her talent,imagination and vast knowledge to provide us with a unique piece of literature.Indeed,while the novel is filled with all the components characteristic of a romance,Byatt makes sure not to fall into clichés; the fate of her characters takes very unexpected and peculiar turns.The ending is also sublime!

3.The Different Voices
The story is narrated through letters,diaries and journals by numerous characters.Each of them has a very singular voice and offers us a new perspective on a myriad of things.Amazingly everyone has his own writing and narrative identity,and Byatt explores the psyche of every individual to perfection.For instance,the naivety and impulsiveness of Sabine,a teenage girl,is cleverly reflected in her diary! In short,we encounter many,many unique characters as we go on through the story.

4.The Wealth of Information
A.S Byatt is reputed for doing a stupendous amount of research before writing a novel,and this was obvious in Possession.In the fictional academic books,whose excerpts we encounter throughout the story,are found many interesting literary analysises; we read,among others, about imageries,Freud’s interpretation of the Medusa or how Victorian poets translated their inspiration into poems.Byatt’s novel is one of the very few which make us see literature though an academic’s eyes; she reveals the craft which writing really is. Besides being an enchanting read,Possession was also very interesting on a factual level.

Possession is a novel that keeps surprising its readers.It is peppered with various poems and tales,written by the fictional poetic figures,which we encounter intermittently throughout the book.The modern day storyline,although narrated only in the third person,can focus as well on the protagonists as on the antagonists.As for the Victorian romance centering the story,it is related through letters and journals by different characters,but certain parts are told in the third person – such occasional narration lends greater verisimilitude to these figures whose lives have so far only been documented.In short,you will never know what to expect from Possession! (If you’re not fond of poems,you’ll love at least one in the book,as they are vast in style and excellently written; ”Mommy Possesst”,”Dolly Keeps a Secret”,and ”Swammerdam” are three of my favourites!)

6.Metafiction at its best!
It was very hard to believe that Christabel LaMotte and Randolph.H Ash were mere fictional characters.Byatt has blurred reality with fiction so well that they have become indistinguishable from each other.In fact there is nothing which indicates that these characters are fictional,as the author has done everything needed to make them look real.What can perfectly illustrate Byatt’s colossal effort in that respect is the sheer number of excerpts taken from the books about the lives and works of her poetic figures which we’re made to read! For one particular biography,she even created an appendix! Honestly,I doubt we will ever see a better metafictional book than Possession.

What you might not like in Possession:

1.The Pace
The first chapters of the story moves at a very glacial pace and this has led many readers to give up reading the book.However once the ”Correspondence” chapter is over,pace is gathered and events follow quickly.

2.The Language
The language found in the letters,being consonant with the Victorian period,is very abstruse.Another point of frustration might be Christabel LaMotte’s writing style; it is very reminiscent of Woolf’s,for it is devoid of the classical use of punctuations,and as a result,is not that easy to understand.The two poets also make lots of literary allusions in their correspondence,and these can be hard to grasp.

3.The Size
Possession is not of the same size as the notoriously huge Anna Karenina,Brothers Karamazov or Of Human Bondage.However it is still rather big,and one might need more time to finish it than he needs for the books aforementioned,because of its heavy language and slow pace.It certainly isn’t a book whose pages you can read many a day.

Verdict: Possession is arguably one of the best books of all time.Love it or hate it,you will have to admit that there has seldom been a book of such magnitude and craft written in the past.It is the exact kind of book,which,before its publication,could only be dreamt about,for so monumental was the effort needed to actualize it.But luckily for us,we had A.S Byatt.In fact Possession is a very audacious book,because it is so multi-layered and so ambitious,that it needed to be written by an author of corresponding calibre; the least I can say is that Byatt has remarkably passed the test! It demands much patience from its readers and might be difficult to read at times,but its beauty is undeniable! This is a must read for lovers of literature*.

Note: I said,”lovers of literature” ; if you simply love reading anything,you might hate this one.

26 thoughts on “Why You Should Read Possession (A.S Byatt)”

  1. This novel has many pleasures, and being an incredibly vivid and faithful account of the life in academia is one of them. It’s not the most classic “campus novel”, it’s even better than that 🙂

      1. I did like what you wrote! But I forgot to “like” it 😉 Your reviews are consistently of high standard, and this one is no exception.

      2. Thanks then. 🙂
        It was not so much about your ‘like’ as about your appreciation of the review,which I deem important,given that you read the book; you could tell whether I was mistaken or not.

      3. I see what you mean. I’m very much open to all sensible interpretations of a book, so to me the question of being “right” or “wrong” when reviewing a book is not really a question. Your review is insightful and intelligent — I can only wish that my English Literature students were capable of such in-depth analysis. As to whether I agree with you, yes, though I was surprised that you found the language difficult because I didn’t. That’s probably the one point where my opinion would diverge from yours 🙂

      4. Oh,the difficult language is pretty similar to Brave New World’s ”gloominess”.

        I didn’t find the Victorian language really difficult,but I can imagine that other people who’re used to reading more accessible classics might see it as an obstacle! 😉
        That’s why I included it here,so as to let others know!

        And thanks for the compliment! 🙂

  2. Great review! I remember reading this ages ago, and it felt luxurious – I can’t think how else to describe it – I just sort of sank into the writing. It’s a phenomenal achievement by AS Byatt.

  3. I’d like to think of myself as a lover of literature. 😉 I would love to read Possession because I love a story told in the non-traditional way. Mrs. Dalloway for example. I also love to be challenged when I read. When I read a challenging work I feel like I’m decoding a very important puzzle. It’s exciting.

    1. Given the books you read and liked,I had you in my mind when I said ”lovers of literature”. I’m 100% honest here!!

      I have no doubt that you will appreciate the book’s beauty and the stupendous efforts Byatt made to write such a little gem! 🙂

      As for the challenges,I think you’ll find many in the book! 😉

  4. Another story told entirely through letters, “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.” It’s not as well written as “Possession”, but it’s interesting. I believe the show “Island at War” is based off this novel. It takes place on the Channel Islands during Nazi invasion.

    1. Thanks for telling about this book which was so far unknown to me! I checked it,and it is pretty popular,with an average rating of 4.1 for a little less than 300,000 users! I’ve added it in my wish list and will try to read it soon! 🙂
      And thanks also for commenting! 🙂

      1. I hope you enjoy it. The protagonist is a little bit too…I don’t know, ditzy, for me, but overall I think the book teaches a lot about how to write an epistolary novel. And the topic is really interesting too. Island at War (the show) delves into a lot of interesting moral ambiguities.

  5. I’m intrigued! I do like a literary challenge yet get annoyed when the author appears to get lost in his or her own writing. I gave up on Goldfinch for that reason–it became almost narcissic in how the author over-described situations.

    1. When reading Possession,you should put away the habit of giving up on books.
      If it were not for my principle of always reading a book to the end,I would stopped reading Possession right at the start.But luckily that was not the case,as I turned to be absolutely mesmerized by the book.

      It’ll start very slowly and there might be some little analyses about literature and poetry which you might not be interested in,but the writing and the storyline are exceptional!! It is an absolute tour-de-force by Byatt!

      1. Ah, but here’s where we differ on books. I used to have the gumption and grit to stick it out to the bitter end with books until I came to the realization that reading books is likened to having a conversation in a room full of fascinating people. However, quickly you realize the conversation isn’t working out and you would like to move and speak with others as well. Do you stick it out and miss out on becoming involved with a really enlightening person? The analogy here is too many books and not enough time. I know I will not have enough days in my lifetime to complete my TBR list–why waste it? It’s not habit; it’s discernment.

      2. Oh I totally understand! I think and feel exactly like you!But then again,I tend to like the previous book so much that I always find it hard to get into the following book first!

        For instance after Anna Karenina,I thought I would have a hard time with Never Let Me Go! But I adored the book! 🙂

        There are many books which I could have given up,but which turned out to be favourites of mine; Great Gatsby,Lord of the Flies,Never Let Me Go and Possession! 😉

  6. I read this after seeing the movie and enjoyed the book even more than the film. It is now one of my favourites!

    1. Oh yeah! The book is so much better than the movie!!
      It’s always gratifying to meet somebody who has loved this book,because many people fail to appreciate its beauty!

Tell me what you think! :)

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s