A.S. Byatt,
(Vintage, 1990)

This is one literary hodge-podge of a book: literary novel, mystery, epistolary, diary, romance, epic poem and critical essay. Possession, A.S. Byatt's critically acclaimed best-seller, takes each of these aspects and combines them, resulting in a powerful novel about the dark and light of human existence.

Roland Michell discovers an unread letter in the correspondence of famous poet Randolph Henry Ash that could possibly unlock the door to a promising literary career for him. Roland searches out Maud Bailey, a scholar on the poetry of Christabel LaMotte, and together they track down the elusive correspondence between the two poets. In a quest that spans most of Britain and some of France, Roland and Maud find themselves drawn into the bittersweet love affair that Ash and LaMotte hid from the literary world for years. In a sort of modern re-enactment of those two historical figures, Maud and Roland test their own evolving relationship as they search for missing manuscripts and letters to finish the story they stumbled upon.

Byatt's prose has a distinctly British feel to it; there's something academic and proper about her writing style. At first, the novel seems a little standoffish, as though it has a personality of its own. However, once the story starts rocking along, Byatt's characters come to life and take over. LaMotte's poetry resembles that of Emily Dickinson, replete with dashes and Capital Letters everywhere. Ash's epic poems, on the other hand, have a distinctly Coleridge-ian air to them. Each section, whether it is the diary entries of Ash's wife or the critical essays of Dr. Cropper and Dr. Blackadder (the two most eminent Ash scholars in the book), reads with the voice of its character; no two sound alike.

Some of the poetry gets a little long-winded, but I applaud Byatt's heroic attempts to (successfully, I might add) work with so many different styles and genres within one novel. Possession is a highly intelligent novel, drawing on the sexual currents of the Fairy Melusine legend and the sterile environment of literary critical theory. This is not a book you'll be able to breeze through -- but the surprising plot twist at the end will ensure that it's time well spent.

[ by Audrey M. Clark ]

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