A.S. Byatt’s Possession – A Review by Ayesha Hamid

Possession is intriguing from the first line, and the title is apt because reading it will have you so enthralled that you will be “possessed,” by it.  It is a must read for writers because the book gives great examples of: complex plot structure, use of descriptive vocabulary and masterful syntax, and a way to keep the reader intrigued until the very last line.

Thus, in terms of the plot, there’s not just one story in this book; that would be too simple for such a complex work of historical fiction.  Rather, the novel is a story, within a story, which are both part of a larger story.  Presenting such a plot is not an easy task to accomplish, but the writer makes sure that all parts of the story fit together seamlessly.

Placing the reader into two completely separate worlds, the author immerses us into Victorian as well as contemporary England; Byatt situates us in the contemporary, academic world, a world of dissertations, professors, libraries, and research, as well as a past where Victorian poets thrived in their artistic communities.

The story begins with a discovery.  Roland Michell, a research assistant, stumbles onto writing that seems to have been tucked inside a library book by none other than well-known Victorian poet, Randolph Henry Ash.  Roland keeps this discovery a secret because figuring out how the new information fits into the existing scholarship could revolutionize the way the world sees Randolph Henry Ash.  Revealing the secret; however, would mean that Roland would quickly be dismissed from pursuing the work further.  Also, he would not be credited with making the discovery in the first place.  Nevertheless, he enlists the help of Maud Bailey, an expert on the subject of Victorian poets.  Both characters simply want to learn the truth and, unlike others, do not care about the fame that may come with it.  What they learn does revolutionize the way the world looks at Victorian poetry, as well as Randolph Henry Ash.

Crafting an incomparable work, Byatt ends Possession by showing us that we can miss right what is in front of us.  Readers of Possession, as well as the Victorian-age and contemporary characters in the story will all miss what is right in front of them.  What is missed is what will stay with the reader, and this is one of the reasons that Byatt’s work is a literary one.  Possession teaches as well as transforms the reader.

Furthermore, not only does the writer place us precisely in a setting where players yearn for knowledge and academic achievement, but she also makes us into one of the component players. Every chapter starts with an insightful poem, an observation, or quotation that the reader (student) can consider.

So, the reader is pulled into a world of clues, literary hypotheses, and secrets, and while considering the book, the reader needs to make meaning of the complex and well-crafted language.  Throughout the book, Byatt’s language is detailed, descriptive, and dense, and this language helps the reader to be immersed into the Victorian, as well as academic world.  The reader is brought into the puzzle as line upon expertly written line takes him or her deeper into the story.  The author isn’t using gimmicks here.  Rather, we are dealing with an extremely well-thought-out piece of literature.

After reading this book, I understood exactly why it was the recipient of the Booker Literary Prize in 1991.  The book offers the reader at least four, well-crafted, major subplots within the larger plot.  Also, Possession cannot be read passively because the author makes the reader an active participant in the book; the author involves the reader.  This book makes a promise that not all books can:  The reader will be challenged and changed by this book.  For this reason, among others, Possession is an extremely valuable read for writers, as well as those who love literature.  The intellect of the dedicated writer, and even the occasional reader, will benefit from exploring this book.

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