In our apartment, Keith and I have six bookshelves, all of which not only hold books in typical on-their-spine fashion, but also books stacked on top of books and even more piled on top of each case. As if that’s not enough, I’ve also got books squirreled away underneath the coffee and bedside tables, and heaped on the storage unit in our front hallway (which, it should be noted, is also our only hallway, so the use of the word “front” is completely unnecessary). Considering the sheer amount of books we’ve accumulated, it should be no surprise that amongst those there are a couple dozen titles that either Keith or I haven’t read. A.S. Byatt‘s novel Possession is one of those books.
“Have you read this?” I asked Keith earlier this month.
“No,” he said, “I couldn’t get through it.”
For the two of us, this is usually a pretty telling sign. Our tastes are different enough — I tend to hover around contemporary fiction and nonfiction, with some deviation, while Keith skips around more — but when one of us tells the other that we’ve had trouble getting past a certain page or part… well, let’s just say we’ve both tried to read Thomas Mann‘s The Magic Mountain without any success.
Possession was a very rare exception, and I really think that the only reason why I persevered with it was because I’d read some pretty incandescent reviews; I thought, Is there something I’m missing? Though the answer to that question is a resounding no, I would be lying if I said I didn’t have some issues with the novel.
Here’s a basic outline of the plot: Briton Roland Michell is a scholar whose work focuses on the (fictional) Victorian poet Randolph Henry Ash. While researching some of Ash’s personal notes, Roland uncovers his version of a treasure trove: the draft of what appears to be a love letter from Ash to an unidentified woman. Through even more research (this is a novel about a scholar, after all), Roland learns the mystery woman’s identity: Christabel LaMotte, another (fictional) Victorian poet. Roland’s discovery leads him to yet another scholar, Maud Bailey, who not only specializes in LaMotte’s works, but also is one of her descendants. During the course of the novel, not only is the extent of the Ash/LaMotte love affair is revealed, but Roland and Maud’s as well.
At its essence, Possession is a romance; it says so right on the front cover in capital letter. It is also quite boring. Well, maybe boring is too harsh a word — the story is extremely interesting, and would have been even more interesting to me had the book been a hundred and fifty pages shorter (it comes it at 576). Does the reader truly need paragraphs and paragraphs of backstory on practically each minor character? Is it necessary to endure whole chapters dedicated to things such as the diaries of LaMotte and Ash’s contemporaries? What about fables and poetry? At first, it’s fascinating — How creative! What imagination! — but it descends into something like dissolution, slowly tearing the novel apart, and ultimately alienating the reader entirely.