Roland Mitchell‘s life can only be described as dull. He has dedicated his life to studying Victorian poet Randolph Ash, without making any significant progress in his academic career. In part-time employment as a research assistant to Britain‘s leading Ash scholar, he could not afford the rent to his damp basement flat, were it not for his girlfriend Val‘s income. They met in college and stayed together because, well, what else would you do? Dissatisfied and uninspired their lives trod along until, one day in the library, between the covers of one old dusty book, Roland makes a discovery that will change everything.
The book was thick and black and covered with dust. Its boards were bowed and creaking; it had been maltreated in its own time. Its spine was missing, or, rather, protruded from amongst the leaves like a bulky marker. It was bandaged about and about with dirty white tape, tied in a neat bow.
Two drafts of the same letter fall into his hands that Ash tried to write to a woman other than his wife. The passion and emotion emanating from this desperate attempts art finding the right words to establish a conversation move Roland so deeply he can‘t resist pocketing the letters. And so begins his deeply personal and somewhat insane quest to find out who the woman was, that his idol longed to get to know and if and how their relationship might have unfolded. Alongside Maud Bailey deeply private feminist scholar interested in a certain Christabel LaMotte, Roland Mitchell leaves everything behind in an attempt to find the clues that might fill the gaps and complete the story.
I could hardly have started this reading year with a more rewarding novel. Possession, A.S. Byatt‘s Booker prize winning book is an incredible achievement. It is certainly no small feat to write a novel that keeps you turning its 600 pages while also being somewhat of a challenge. There is so much in this book, I don‘t know where to begin. So why not start with the title which alludes to many elements of this book. There is the question of who possesses texts and art. A question that reaches beyond the legal terms of copyright and material ownership of, say, a book in a library‘s collection. Does love for a text, a passionate desire to know and understand it, make you a legitimate owner of it? In turn, could you ever legitimately possess it, without the adequate devotion? Who owns a story – the author or the reader? There is the theme of possession in relationships, what claims can you lay to another person? Can you possess a person and their story, long after their death? And why do we feel this insatiable desire for narrative completion? Why do we find it so hard to let conclusions be unknown? Why does every story need an ending, happy or otherwise?
There is a philosophical layer about the meaning of knowledge and the anxieties around it that prevail in both the eras it depicts: Victorian times and the late 20th century. The ways in which the reflect and oppose each other are playfully explored. Theories clash as the 1980s scholars try to apply their post-structural* analysis to what they find and end up entangled in what could only be described as the epitome of structuralism – a romance.
I will leave other themes in Possession unaddressed here, but I could not end this review without a word on the poetry. Ash and LaMotte are entirely fictional, though reading the poems scattered throughout this book you wouldn‘t think so. In her foreword, Byatt writes she had intended on borrowing existing poetry to build her story on, but her editor convinced her she would have to write it herself. And how grateful we should be to that wise editor! Each chapter is opened by a poem from either poet and we find others quoted within the text. Some may be only a few lines long, others cover entire chapters. And you wouldn‘t doubt their authenticity as Victorian poems, had you not been told otherwise. Byatt has found the perfect balance between her poems being relevant to the story and just revealing enough to excite us while never being on the nose or overtly significant.
Truthfully, with so much in there, this book is dense. Yet it managers to be captivating, even as you trudge through the thick of it. This is the kind of novel in which you could find new layers and hidden meaning on every re-read. Just as much as Roland and Maud are on a quest, the reader finds themself on a literary treasure-hunt through this book, making this not just a rewarding but a joyous reading experience.
Possession is all that a great novel should be, witty and wise, reflective, engaging and astonishingly ambitious. A love-letter to literature!
First published 1990 by Chatto & Windus