Reading Buddies Wrap-Up: “Possession” by A.S. Byatt

by Erin on August 3, 2012

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Well, Reading Buddies, here we are at our last (at least, for now) wrap-up. How did you like Possession by A.S. Byatt? It seemed, to me, an acceptable way to close out the past year and a half of reading together. I wasn’t totally sold on it at the halfway point, but it won me over in the end.

Beware — as always, spoilers are fair game!

I really didn’t know what to expect going in. I bought a used copy at a library sale because Amanda was quite adamant about her love for it. I can’t say I adored it, but I was, overall, rather impressed.

I must admit, the inclusion of all the correspondence and textual evidence annoyed me at times. I felt like the passages were so long and slow to read. But! I grudgingly appreciated that Byatt gave us all the pieces. She did not, as most writers do, include only a key phrase or two. She constructed an entire body of text on which to base her story, and she revealed that corpus to us pretty completely. So, though I found it slow to read through, I would not have wished it away. I think it’s one of the things that makes Possession stand out.

Possession by A.S. Byatt (cover)I was a bit disappointed to realize I was able to guess most of the plot twists and mysteries in advance. I can’t usually do that. I do think a lot of the evidence was there, though. I knew Christabel was talking about Blanche, not the child, when Ash disrupted the seance. I knew her child was alive and had a hunch one of the prominent characters would turn out to be a descendant of him/her. That sort of thing. I wonder, though, if part of the characters’ slowness to realize these things was perhaps because of their proximity to the people involved. They were so intimately familiar with their respective poets, so steeped in the accepted “facts,” that they were slower to see the errors and truths than the reader.

I liked how we didn’t hear the end of the contemporary story. What did Roland decide? Did Maud get the papers? Where did the papers end up? What happened to Cropper? I realized, as I finished the book, that it wasn’t about them. We got a touch of closure with Roland and Maud’s relationship, but that was it. And I think that’s fine.

I also very much enjoyed how LaMotte and Ash grew from stiff, lifeless historical figures under careful academic study into intricate human beings, alive and complicated and flawed. What is so cool is that Byatt achieved this effect almost exclusively through the use of letters and poems. The poets themselves — and other characters, like Ellen — are almost never seen first-hand by the reader, and yet they come so gloriously to life.

Which brings me to my central question: Why did Byatt include those few scenes set during the poets’ lifetimes? Why did the reader get this glimpse of truth when the characters themselves did not? I’m not sure I liked those parts. I think I would have preferred to get the story along with the characters, to leave the gaps empty or have them filled in, at least partially, by other textual evidence. Am I the only one who feels that way?

So! Overall, really glad I finally read this one. I hope you are, too. I’ll be honest — it’s made me wonder what other fascinating stories are hidden in correspondence and the like!

If you read along, or if you’ve read Possession in the past, what are your thoughts? I’d love to hear them!

Care to share?

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5 comments
Margaret
Margaret

Good points, Erin, and as for what lies in correspondence, maybe we should sneak that into our Letter-Loving online group??

I liked the wrap-up, I liked the slow unraveling of the seance, I got some of the plot twists before the characters, but not as many as you did, looks like.

I loved the contemporary daily-life bits about the UK and academia- similar to Major Pettigrew's Last Stand, which I recently finished (great story as well). Well done, Buddies!

Jenny
Jenny

Oh I love what you say about the glimpses the reader gets of the past! I never thought of it when I was reading the book, but I think it does detract from the rest of the book. The research research research stuff is what made the book for me. You're so right. The book would have been better if it had maintained that tight focus on what the present-day scholars knew.

zibilee
zibilee

Your wrap-up of this one makes me wish that I could read it again. I had forgotten about all of those little plot points that make the book turn, and I think that Byatt was really successful when it came to showing the idiosyncratic elements of academia. Great post today!

Amanda
Amanda

How strange what does and doesn't strike us. That correspondance chapter was what made the book for me. But then again, the reason I loved the book so much was more to do with personal experience than the book itself. The book took a very difficult time of my life and put it into poetry in a way that I never would have been able to do, and I've admired it ever since. On the other hand, I've never made it more than a few pages into any of her other books.

Trish
Trish

I was just thinking the other day that this will be THE book I read in 2013 (was too wrapped up in The Stand to do any other readalongs lately). I'm glad you enjoyed it but it sounds as though you weren't as crazy about it as Amanda. Must be a bit bittersweet with this as your last Reading Buddies!