Sherien's Reviews > Possession

Possession by A.S. Byatt
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Jan 09, 2012

it was amazing
bookshelves: 20th-century
Recommended for: ayu
Read in October, 2009

"I cannot bear not to know the end of a tale. I will read the most trivial things – once commenced – only out of a feverish greed to be able to swallow the ending – sweet or sour – and to be done with what I need never have embarked on. Are you in my case? Or are you a more discriminating reader? Do you lay aside the unprofitable?"

I have never encountered a novel such magnificent and beautifully written as this. A.S. Byatt undeniably has an outstanding ability in literature and it makes it clear to me why she won the Booker Prize in 1990. Reading this marvelous piece had been an amazing journey. My imagination had been triggered to expand more than ever—more than I expected. Shifting back and forth between two eras that are told alternately, I was slowly traversing in an amazing conundrum through various forms of writing; letters, diaries, poems, and even fairy tales. Byatt shows how imagination and creativity can possibly be manifested in various modes and are not strictly bound by a clear definition or a specific genre. I admit that this had not been an easy one to delve into, but it had been a worth journey indeed. I mean, who else writes like this?

Possession: A Romance (1990) mainly tells a story about two literary scholars name Maud Bailey and Roland Michell discovering a mystery (secret love affair) behind the lives of two notable Victorian poets—Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte. A dual plot of two different eras told alternately not only sets as a comparison, but relates and complements one another. Through out the modern world, Byatt seems to emphasize the issues faced in the literary academic world; rivalry between scholars, obsession in researches, literary criticism and interpretation. Meanwhile the Victorian part depicts not only the love affair but also issues that were faced in those days—religious doubts, the birth of science and social-class conflicts. What amazes me here is how well Byatt manages to portray the difference between the two eras significantly using two style of language that are apparent in each era. The Victorian era is narrated in a slow pace with rich description of a Victorian setting so believable, you could sense the atmosphere of the 19th century as if you were reading a novel by the Bronte sisters. On the other hand, the modern part is plotted in a typical popular fiction form with its plot-driven style.

As I have mentioned above, what is unique about this book is the several different devices that the author uses. Letters and diaries not only play important roles in moving the plot forward with hints related to the main mystery, but clearly gives an understanding of the power and importance of written words. Hand written letters and diaries were clearly important intimate literary devices that were mainly used in the Victorian era, and here Byatt emphasizes to set a comparison on how the circumstance have by far changed in the modern days. Not only that, through the poems Byatt uses as epigraphs, gives a clear prove how more deeply connected people in the previous century were with poetry. Byatt shows high ability in creating poems that resembles accurately the styles of those Victorian and Romantic poets. Another essential device is the use of fairy tales through out the story. Similar to the poems, fairy tales in the story functions as riddles that are there to decipher. I found the fairy tales reflecting the whole course of the story yet at the same time deconstructing the basic structure of a classic-predictable-happy ending. The relationships between the characters are to be seen as a fairy tale, yet etched with a bittersweet touch that appears to be more realistic.

Possession: A Romance is a story that points out many aspects but one that is obvious is that it shows how ‘possession’ works in each human’s life. Each of the characters in this story is obsessed with something/someone. The story not only shows how one can be possessed, but how far can one possess. In the end, this story shows that nothing can be entirely possessed no matter how obsessed they may be. Most of the mysteries are enfolded through the works of diaries, letters, poems that the modern scholars discover. But there are two parts that the author switches to her own point of view. Byatt portrays what really happen in those poets’ life that are not known by the modern scholars—characters. These important parts are only known by us—readers. The scholars could not possess complete information on what they have been so obsessed about. I find this altogether a very clever and important statement questioning the meaning and essence of ‘possession’ itself. Can we entirely possess that being we strongly love? Can a researcher/biographer possess accurate information on a real person’s life? Can we possess complete knowledge of the past (history)?

This isn’t an easy read but certainly not a once in a lifetime one. I sure will be reading it sometime again.

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Reading Progress

01/21/2010 page 463
87.69% "almost there! almost there!" 3 comments
01/24/2010 page 528
100.0% 1 comment

Comments (showing 1-16 of 16) (16 new)

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Grace Tjan Let me know what you think of this one, Sherien. I think if you're an English major, you'll love this book. : )

Sherien So far its going interesting...but this is not something that I can fast-read... I'd have to read some parts (especially the poems) over and over again just to get a better understanding on how it relates to the main plot in particular...I guess this book is not an easy one to get through...

message 3: by Rebecca (new)

Rebecca No, it is not a fast read at all. I admire you for tackling it Sherien. Sound like you have a nagvigation plan, that is great.

Grace Tjan Sherien, I also felt overwhelmed by the poems when I first read it. I just scanned or skipped them altogether, and just followed the mystery. You still can understand the story without them. I came back to the poems later. The story and writing is very good, and I think it's worth the effort. Good luck!

Sherien @Sandy: I agree that the writing is really good! The mystery is really engaging! Im skipping and fast-reading some of the poems right now...looks like this book needs to be read more than u did, I'll get back to the poems later..
@Rebecca: have u finished? what do u think about it?

Grace Tjan Are you finished yet? Did you guess the mystery?

The epilogue is sad but also touching.

Sherien No I havent finished it yet..still got a long way to go...will get back to it after Joy luck club...

Grace Tjan "Although this story consist of two plots—the Victorian and the Modern, I found myself more drawn in the Victorian part of the story. What amazes me is that this modern author is able to portray and create a Victorian story; characters, setting, conflicts, and even way of writing so believable. You can sense the different atmosphere between the two eras although to me, at some parts the modern part of the story tends to feel a bit ‘dry’ and not deeply developed."


message 9: by Ayu (new) - added it

Ayu Palar A great review! Yayyy!

Pinjem yaaah :D

Sherien Sip!
Thank u for liking my review, sandy and ayu!

Captain Sir Roddy, R.N. (Ret.) Wonderful review, Sherien! My response to "Possession" pretty much mirrors yours. It is probably one of my top-five favorite works of fiction of all time. Well done! Cheers! Chris

Sherien thank you, chris! I'm still reading 'the children's book' right now... So far its interesting, but I still don't find it as good as 'Possession' yet...

Grace Tjan Yay Sherien! Long time no see! This must have been an epic read for you.:)

As for the Children's Book, I have to agree with Elizabeth that, unfortunately, it's not as good as Possession. It's good in certain parts, but on the whole, the writing is kind of patchy. But I know that many love it, so perhaps you'll find it to be enjoyable too.

Happy reading and see you around.

Sherien Elizabeth & Sandy: I just finished 'the children's book'! Well, it was enjoyable but still not as well written as 'possession'. Byatt had lots of interesting ideas in 'the children's book', but somehow I just don't see them deeply developed. The characters are too many and some seem to have no major significance at all. All in all it was interesting but just wasn't that amazing :)

Grace Tjan Sherien wrote: "Elizabeth & Sandy: I just finished 'the children's book'! Well, it was enjoyable but still not as well written as 'possession'. Byatt had lots of interesting ideas in 'the children's book', but som..."

I think the book really needs firm editing, or maybe the material would work better as a two-parter, or even two separate novels altogether.

Bookguide You make an interesting point about the two passages where the reader learns something which none of the characters are privy to. It is interesting to read the analysis of a student of English literature as A.S. Byatt obviously uses many literary devices which I cannot unravel, as a simple reader. It is somewhat strange to realise that I have enjoyed reading many Victorian novels, yet a pastiche of a Victorian novel could not hold my interest.

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