By A. S. Byatt

Why I Chose This Book
A long, long time ago I owned a copy of this book. Perhaps I received it as a gift or hand-me-down. Read it. Loved it! Not sure why I didn’t write about it. (Perhaps I hadn’t started a blog yet.) Anyway, a few weeks ago now a crate of books came my way (it’s where I got Mirror, Mirror from) and Possession was among the lot. I think, seriously, that it was my copy of Possession that I’d passed along to my mother that she never read that ended up in that crate–and a visit to the garage library sorted first by genre then author reveals that my copy of Possession is not on the shelves–but I rescued it and read it again, because, well, I love academic mysteries, particularly fictional ones. And I also had some free time.

Why I Chose Right Now to Review This Book
Well, first, the whole house is clean so I gave myself the afternoon off from fretting about fooling around on the internet while my whole house is dirty. Second, a perfectly innocent margarita that I mixed at home has compromised my ability to stand in the kitchen and prepare food for dinner (which was really only going to be a series of heating-up of things so it doesn’t really matter). Third, I want to review it and then restore it to its place on the garage library shelf before it attracts a lot of other clutter to the coffee table, and because Kindred and The Stranger are itching to catch up. Finally, sitting and writing keeps me from picking the cashews out of the mixed nuts, which has to be a win-win situation for everyone involved.

Nutshell Review of the Book
Romantic! Suspenseful! Made me feel smart! Made me want to go to England to walk Ash’s nature trail through Yorkshire and climb Boggle Hole right after I go to New Zealand and walk the Lord of the Ring trail to Mordor and hike Mount Doom. I could have done without all the epic poetry, but that’s just me. So I didn’t read any of it, and probably missed four extra layers of meaning. I’m a philistine like that.

Detailed Review of the Book
This is a review I could spend a long time on and spin a lot of wheels and look ridiculous trying to analyze, so I won’t really say anything at all about themes, or the characters, or symbolism. Mostly I think Possession is a book that is as interesting to reread as it was to pick through it the first time. It’s the kind of book that even knowing how it ends can’t wreck it–despite the fact that it’s basically a detective novel through and through. There are nearly twenty characters, including a couple of villains scattered about, and people the author gives you permission to despise (Val) without ever letting you blame them for the problems they cause. It’s a book that transitions well between historical eras (1980s and 1860s), between action (albeit of the research kind) and introspection/analysis (of the lit crit kind), and between various forms of text (third-person narration, poetry, diaries, textbook language with footnotes, personal correspondence, et cetera). It also balances pretty well very diverse points of view, and probably portrays an insightful look at academic ambition, rivalry, and hierarchy in the United Kingdom about 20 years ago, which I can’t judge for accuracy (having not been a lot of things), but the stresses of which I felt very keenly, on behalf of everyone involved (professors and grad students and civilians and research assistants all).

It’s fashionable right now to throw around the phrase “in your wheelhouse,” but this book really is in mine. I love stories about ancient mysteries, clues in ancient texts, what myths really mean, all that kind of stuff. I’ve mentioned it before when I was reviewing the book Odysseus Unbound, which is a nonfiction book about a real-life attempt to locate the actual location of Homer’s Ithaca. In this case, it’s all pretend, but it seems just as possible, and as a reader I became completely invested in Maud and Roland’s (1980s) mission to solve the puzzles that the incomplete records of the (1860s) lives and works of Randolph Ash and Charlotte LaMotte present. It was even more exciting when you realized that the reader has information about the past that the present-day characters can’t access; you watch the characters muddle along partly in a voyeuristic way but also in a spectator sport way. We know what Roland and Maud have to do and what information they need, but we can’t be sure they will be able to find it. The discrepancy in what the readers and the characters can access further highlights how history–determined in the 1980s by people who don’t know the whole story–really is just a reconstruction of the past based on what they wish it was like. What Maud and Roland might discover could overturn all LaMotte and Randolph scholarship, and force people to reconstruct these (fictional) authors’ histories from the ground up.

I’m not slamming history. I know there are careful methods to research and that historians do check up on each other to examine biases and all that, but you just can’t know all the Whys and Whats of Times Gone By. I mean, hell–Roland and Maud and Val and Beatrice and the rest of the characters of the book who live in the same time and talk to each other can’t even really know what is going on in each others’ minds–even when they try to communicate. And now I really don’t want to get into serious literary criticism about how words have no true meanings and everything is relative and all that, because the book isn’t quite that either (and also because Derrida is my kryptonite), and maybe this aspect of the book is very much an artifact of being written in the 1980s, but it is worth pondering–along with Byatt and her characters–whether there is value in not-knowing, and how easy it is to construct and overturn a truth, and who decides what history is worth preserving.

I will say that I thought the book bogged down at the part where Sabine is keeping a diary, but maybe that’s because I knew what was coming and wanted to jump to that part. I also find it interesting how the two American characters are presented in this book about British people in the UK. Cooper is certainly the most villainous of the characters, although that word overstates the case a lot and he is only “hurting” living people in order to serve history. He has a lot of money to through around, a strong sense of entitlement, and few scruples. Leonora is open and brash and large and colorfully dressed and very friendly and saturates any space she moves through. Both characters are viewed by the British characters as people to hide from and to deceive. I wonder what’s behind these character depictions. What was going on in the 1980s in academic literature circles that inspired Byatt to pit these British scholars against these American scholars in these particular ways? Plus of all the American locations she could have chosen, she put them both in New Mexico. There’s story behind all this, I’m sure, but I just don’t know what it is. But it’s exciting to suspect and wonder while not-knowing.

See what I did there? Now I know just how Maud and Roland feel!

What’s on Deck
The Land of Painted Caves by Auel
Ali & Nino by Said
Woman on the Edge of Time by Piercy
A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry

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