A. S. Byatt’s Possession: The Secret Love Lives of Dead Poets

Possession (1990), number 80 on the BBC book list, by A. S. Byatt is a literary thriller about academics.  White it has been highly acclaimed and even has status as a bestseller, I wondered if everybody could truly like or enjoy this book, or if only bibliophiles, English majors, and academics would be drawn to its charm.

possession cover

The premise is that Ph.D. student and research assistant Roland Michell finds some lost love letters of fictional and famous English poet Randolph Henry Ash to a woman not his wife.  Roland follows the research trail of some letter fragments, eventually figuring out to whom they were written.  He ends up collaborating with another academic, Maud Bailey, in chasing the leads to the mystery woman, another fictional poet named Christabel LaMotte.  It turns out that the two had an unknown love affair chronicled in their letters, which Roland and Maud find through some good fortune and knowledge of poetry.  See what I mean?  Could only an English major appreciate this sort of mystery?

While I was intrigued by this mystery and found myself excited to see what would happen next, I did find myself somewhat bored with the breaks in the narrative that shared the contents of the correspondence between the two poet lovers and the breaks that shared their poetry and prose.  There were long chapters with these materials, which I applaud Byatt for composing, but I also got bored with it and ended up skimming some of it.  If I hadn’t been interested in the academic mystery that required archival research, I may have stopped reading altogether.

As the narrative progressed, the stories of Roland and Maud and the two lover poets come together in a twist that reminded me of The Da Vinci Code’s premise.  I won’t ruin the plot for you, in case you’d like to read this 511-page novel, but rest assured that it is both corny and wonderful.  All of the loose ends tie up nicely in a twist that I did not expect from the beginning, but that I anticipated once the narrative took me close enough to it.

I enjoyed this novel.  I was gripped by it in certain places and also a little bored at times, but overall I am glad I read it.  I would recommend it to those of you who find yourselves intrigued by an academic/literary mystery thriller novel.  That description sounds ridiculous, but that is what this book is.

So of course it was a bestseller.  Those of us who read like this sort of thing.  If you’re a bibliophile, you’ll like this book.  And you’ll be in good company as a lover of books, literature, and the secret love lives of dead poets.