A.S. Byatt

Possession

A Romance


Book review by Anthony Campbell. Copyright © Anthony Campbell (1999).

A.S Byatt calls this a "romance" rather than a "novel". On the flyleaf she quotes Nathaniel Hawthorne to explain the reason for this decision, which seems to be partly self-indulgence and partly the fact that the story links a "bygone time" with the present. The historical narrative concerns a secret love affair between two fictional Victorian poets. The modern narrative concerns two academics, a man and a woman, who stumble on the story of this affair and embark on a quest to discover what happened. In the process they fall in love with each other. The book thus follows different interweaving threads simultaneously; much of the Victorian narrative is told in the forms of letters and diaries, but at certain crucial points Byatt resorts to telling us directly what happened. This inevitably breaks the 'realism' of the story since one is obviously aware that the author has intervened directly, but this effect is no doubt intended for Byatt is a deeply "literary" writer and very much aware of modern critical discussions of narrative conventions. She also doesn't shrink from the task of providing extensive samples of the work of both poets: a risky undertaking, but I think she gets away with it.

This book won the 1990 Booker Prize. I have to admit that I seldom read books which win prizes, but I was glad I made an exception for this one. I enjoyed it greatly. I hope I haven't given the impression that it's heavy going, for it isn't. There are some very funny sequences, particularly those that involve other academics, some American, who get wind of what is happening and try to get in on the act. I found Byatt's earlier novel, The Virgin in the Garden, rather hard going, but this one was a great improvement.


%T Possession
%S A Romance
%A A.S. Byatt
%I Vintage
%C London
%D 1991
%G ISBN 0 09 550040 3
%P pp 511
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