Thursday, January 30, 2020

Book 218: Possession

"Vocabularies are crossing circles and loops. We are defined by the lines we choose to cross or be confronted by."

Dates read: March 21-25, 2018

Rating: 8/10

Lists/awards: Booker Prize, Time's All-Time 100 Novels

When you learn a second language, one of the first verbs you usually learn (after "to be" and "to do") is "to have". It's a fiendishly tricky beast to work your way around how it's used in various languages, not in the least because it's so broadly used in English. You can have tangible things, like a dog. Intangible ones, like a cold. You can "have" relationships. You can "have" a fight with the person you're in a relationship with. English, it seems, is hung up on the idea of having.

Many of the various kinds of having come into play in A.S. Byatt's Booker Prize-winning Possession. Young British scholar Roland Mitchell has a dead-end, barely-paying job doing research work for a university literature professor, who specializes in a (fictional) Victorian-era poet called Randolph Ash. While paging through one of Ash's books at the library one day, he finds two drafts of a letter to a woman that Ash met at a breakfast. Impulsively, he pockets them, and goes on a mission to discover who the woman was, and if the letter was ever even sent. He figures out quickly that it was, and its recipient was a fellow (fictional) poet called Christabel LaMotte...which leads him to Dr. Maud Bailey, who studies LaMotte.

The two then have a secret, as they try to uncover what might have passed between Ash and LaMotte without alerting Roland's boss, Maud's colleagues, or an avaricious American researcher who is constantly acquiring Ash memorabilia for his museum in New Mexico. That the two poets knew each other at all is new information, and as Maud and Roland discover more and more about how deep the connection ran, all of the knowledge that anyone "had" about them gets flipped on its head. And all along, Roland and Maud grow closer, which is problematic because Roland has a long-time girlfriend whose work supports them both, and Maud has issues of her own when it comes to relationships.

Despite their plot differences, I was reminded of nothing so much as The Name of the Rose while I read Possession. Both are rich reads, dense in the best possible sense of the word...the kind of thing that even while you're reading it, you know you'll get even more out of it the next time around. Byatt doesn't just include the main narrative, she supplements it with poems "by" the poets, "their" letters to each other, diaries from third parties. This must have been enormously difficult, to come up with distinct voices and styles for all of these characters, but it all fits in so smoothly it's hard to believe that this isn't all based on real people.

The mystery that Roland and Maud are trying to solve unwinds slowly but maintains tension...the delays that pop up feel organic and not just shoehorned in to pad page length. The characters are well-developed, and the way Byatt parallels their stories with those of the people they're researching is beautifully done. The prose is lively, despite its density, and the book moves faster than you think while you're reading it (partly because it's so absorbing). It's really an excellent book, one that I look forward to reading again one day. I highly recommend this, but beware: it's not light or easy reading, and deals with some emotionally turbulent subjects. Go in ready for something that will reward attention and move you, and (hopefully) you'll enjoy it!

One year ago, I was reading: Hausfrau

Two years ago, I was reading: Lost Horizon

Three years ago, I was reading: Marlena

Four years ago, I was reading: Creative Mythology

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