Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Possession by A. S. Byatt

It's a routine day for Roland Mitchell, a scholar who works for a foundation in London that studies the life and works of the Victorian poet, Randolph Henry Ash.  Roland is considered average, at work and in his personal life, where he shares a run-down flat with his only girlfriend, Vera.  But things are about to change.  As he reads in a book to discover the fact that his boss has sent him to retrieve, a letter falls out.  It's an undiscovered letter from Ash and it is addressed to a woman who he's met at a luncheon.  It appears that he was struck by the woman and wants to strike up a friendship.

Roland, almost without thought, decides to keep the letter.  As he researches the luncheon, it appears that the woman must be Christabel LaMotte, another Victorian poet who is known mostly for her poems full of fairy tales and classic legends, and for being an example of one of the first lesbian poets.  Roland goes to see an expert on LaMotte, Maud Bailey, who is actually related slightly to LaMotte, and who is fascinated also.  They visit LaMotte's grave and while on a walk, rescue a woman who has gotten into trouble.  She turns out to be the wife of the local squire and the home where LaMotte ended her life as a spinster aunt.  While having tea with the couple, Roland and Maud are given permission to go see Christabel's old room and they discover a treasure--a thick sheave of letters that makes it clear that Christabel and Roland were definitely friends, if not more.

This is news that can turn the academic world on its head and make careers.  As the two research further, they develop a passion for the letters and the story they portray.  Yet, it's difficult to keep such a momentous secret in the academic world.  Soon others have figured out their secret and the letters become involved in a tug-of-war between various academics. 

A.S. Byatt won the Booker Prize for this novel and it is easy to see why.  On the surface, it is a novel about the love stories between Ash and LaMotte and between Roland and Maud.  But underneath, it leaves the reader swooning with the lush language, the references to legends and fairy-tales, illustrated by poetry from the two authors, and the slow love story that builds yet may not end in happiness.  This book is recommended for literary fiction readers.

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