“Possession” by A. S. Byatt is another of the Vintage 21 series and this edition is striking with its purple cover and page edges. Its genre has been described as “historiographic metafiction“, which is a fancy term for a postmodern fusion of historical fiction and alternative history. When aspirational literary academic Roland Michell discovers the suggestion of correspondence between renowned (fictional) Victorian poet Randolf Henry Ash and acclaimed pre-feminist poet Christabel LaMotte, he embarks on a secret treasure hunt with LaMotte expert Maud Bailey to find out the true nature of their relationship. This novel fulfils a sort of historian’s fantasy by uncovering the suggestion of an illicit tryst between two famous poets over 100 years after the fact.
This book is a slow burn. At first I found it hard to see why on earth I should care about the lives of literary figures who have never existed, however the story soon becomes engrossing. “Possession” is both intricate and fussy with a very English infatuation with collected objects, quiet trips, countryside rambles and Roland and Maud’s shared dream about being alone in a bed with clean white sheets.
In typical Booker Prize winner fasion, “Possession” has rather an unconventional structure with the escapades of Roland and Maud in their modern setting interspersed with letter excerpts, poems and documents from Ash and LaMotte. Byatt is clearly very clever and her writing is beautiful if somewhat stilted. She manages to bring each character to life and give them their own unique voice, particularly when comparing Ash’s poetry to LaMotte’s.
“Possession” did seem a little heavy on the plot devices and it is just a little too convenient that each piece of the puzzle is found in perfect chronology. However, the reader’s efforts are rewarded with a supremely satisfying ending where absolutely everything is tidily resolved.
Nevertheless, this is not a book for everyone. I think opinions about it would largely be divided between “this is boring, I can’t be bothered” and “this is both exquisite and captivating”. To really enjoy Byatt’s novel you need to have a sense of perserverence and a real love for the English language, and if you do, it is well worth the read.