Possession by A.S. Byatt
Reviewed by Cindy Jones
"The book was thick and black and covered with dust. It was bandaged about and about with dirty white tape, tied in a neat bow...The librarian handed it to Roland Michell, who was sitting waiting for it in the Reading Room of the London Library. It had been exhumed from Locked Safe no. 5."
I am virtually sitting on Roland Michell's lap on page one, urging him to untie the neat bow, savoring my Pavlovian response to the appearance of a dusty hardcover. Because the very mention of a black book covered with dust sends me back to my professor-grandfather's book shelves where I spent summers pulling old hardcovers off shelves, searching for fiction. My grandfather had wide-ranging interests, so I had to sort through philosophy, politics, and social history before finding a novel. But his bookshelves introduced me to, among others: The French Lieutenant's Woman, stories by Maupassant, and novels by Iris Murdoch. A story that opens with a dusty old book placed in the hands of the protagonist has my attention.
Possession is the story of two young scholars researching the lives of two Victorian poets based on Robert Browning and Emily Dickenson. The gripping novel is part love story, part intellectual mystery, with a dash of academic satire. As the scholars search letters, journals, and poems for clues to the poets' secret affair, each revelation begs an urgent new question. Tension is sustained to the last page where the reader is privy to knowledge that none of the characters share. Possession called me like a siren during the day while I was trying to do other things, and eclipsed reality while I read it.
Bonus points: excerpts of the poets' work: letters, journals, stories and poems seem so authentic I researched to see if I had missed something. Were the characters Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte actual Victorian poets? The answer is no. A.S. Byatt created every word written by their fictional pens, producing a complete body of work for her characters. And since my current work-in-progress includes a composer of classical music, I paid close attention, picking up ideas for writing fictional symphonies.
A.S. Byatt hails from the same British literary tradition that created such satisfying novels as Jane Eyre, Howard's End, and Tess of the D'Urbervilles. Possession has so much in common with my all-time favorite novels that I suspect Byatt, sister of Margaret Drabble, must share literary DNA with all the great British writers. Surely they can trace their writing genes back to Austen and Dickens, all related by print, with variations of the same ink flowing through their writing veins.
Although this book was published over twenty years ago (the decade I spent buried in diapers and strained carrots) I just read it this summer. I pulled it off a shelf in a used book store, an act reminiscent of reaching into my grandfather's bookshelves, and, like finding wonderful new books in the expansive summer days of my adolescence, this dusty hardcover happened to be a Booker prize-winning, NYTimes bestselling novel, the kind of story that could carry me to a world far away. Dusty old hardcovers are very hard to resist.
|My TBR pile: dangerously tall|
What other great books have I missed? What was the best book you read last summer? Please share in the comments section.