Possession by A S Byatt

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Possession by A S Byatt

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Paul Curd
Reviewed by Paul Curd
Summary: A multi-layered Booker-prizewinning novel about the nature of love and 'possession'. A brilliant read, sadly let down by the cheap and pulpy quality of this edition.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 528 Date: August 2009
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN: 978-0099535157

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A S Byatt won the Booker Prize for Possession in 1990 and this new edition of the novel is part of a celebration of Booker winners produced by Vintage Books. Presumably in an attempt to make these literary prize-winners more accessible, Vintage has published the series in mass market format. This edition of Possession is therefore similar in size and appearance to an airport lounge blockbuster. More on that later.

The novel itself has acquired a reputation as a 'difficult' read, but don't let that put you off. Like all great novels, it works on many different levels, and if you don't want to delve into the deeper significance of the text you can simply enjoy the story and the wonderful prose. The plot revolves around two couples. In the present (1984) there are the English literature academics, Roland Michell and Maud Bailey. Roland is interested in (you might say infatuated with) the life of the Victorian poet, Randolph Henry Ash. Maud is the leading expert on another Victorian poet, Christabel LaMotte. It is Ash and LaMotte (apparently based by Byatt on Robert Browning and Christina Rosetti) who together make up the second couple in this romance.

Roland discovers evidence of this relationship in the Reading Room of the London Library, while he is leafing through an old book that once belonged to Ash. Tucked inside, undisturbed for a century, are two unfinished letters written by Ash which suggest the Victorian poet may have had a hitherto unknown extra-marital liaison. Roland soon discovers that the letters were intended for Christabel LaMotte. Roland realises at once the significance of this discovery. If he can establish a connection between Ash and LaMotte he will save his floundering academic career. As he works with Maud Bailey to uncover the truth, the two academics themselves begin to fall in love. Meanwhile, Roland's boss and two rival academics from America are on the trail, determined to prove their own versions of the 'truth' about Ash and LaMotte, and the novel shifts up a gear.

Byatt has expertly recreated Victorian-style poetry, stories and letters as part of the authentic feel of the novel they provide both 'clues' in the detective work carried out by the modern characters and as counterpoints to their developing relationship. There is some stinging satire on modern academia along the way as well as a clever examination of the nature of love and 'possession'. And, of course, the prose is a pure delight.

What I didn't like about this book, though, was the book itself. It looks and feels cheap and nasty. The pages are pulpy. The print is just a tad too small for comfortably reading, and then it gets even smaller when letters or stories are being quoted (at considerable length). As a result, I found the whole reading experience oddly diminished.

Although I would wholeheartedly recommend Possession, I fear I'm less sanguine about recommending this particular 'mass market' edition.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

Further reading suggestion: How to Paint a Dead Man by Sarah Hall is nominated for this year's Booker award. Or, for another Booker-nominated literary Victorian detective story, try Arthur and George by Julian Barnes.

Booklists.jpg Possession by A S Byatt is in the Booker Prize Winners.

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Buy Possession by A S Byatt at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Possession by A S Byatt at Amazon.co.uk Amazon currently charges £2.99 for standard delivery for orders under £20, over which delivery is free.
Buy Possession by A S Byatt at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Possession by A S Byatt at Amazon.com.


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