Possession by A.S. Byatt
Short Review: An intricate, beautiful, arguably overlong book beautifully read by a very talented narrator. This isn’t a book for everyone, but it was definitely a book for me.
Long Review: I decided to listen to this audiobook as part of 12 books in 12 months, a reading project floating out there in the blogosphere which encourages people to finally read at least a dozen of the books that have been haunting our shelves for ages. This one seemed apt, because I’d originally picked up a paper copy of Possession at the beginning of my graduate school program. At the time, I was too discouraged by how sad the protagonist’s life is at the outset. As a new grad student contemplating a transfer to a more fitting but probably less marketable program, it scared me away, and fast.
The book is very dense and incredibly detailed, and as I listened, I wavered between loving the layered detail and thinking Byatt should have edited out more and simplified the book. Possession follows a frustrated, underemployed, unpublished English Literature graduate student working on the (fictional) poet Randolph Henry Ash, who discovers some heretofore lost drafts of a letter to a woman. Roland becomes obsessed with tracking down the unnamed addressee and discovering the nature of his relationship to the woman Ash addressed. He meets Maud Bailey, a young professor and expert on the under-appreciated (and also fictional) poet Christabel LaMotte. The two contemporary academics studiously pick through letters and poems and search for lost or unknown correspondence, and end up uncovering wonderful connections between the historical writers and developing an interesting relationship of their own.
What’s fascinating about this book is how layered it is, and how much attention it pays to topics that are very dear to my heart. It delves into Breton and Scandinavian mythology, poetry, feminist theory, embroidery and knitting (though only touches of those, sadly), the nature of love, the nature of poetry, the nature of translation and retellings of myths (my nerdy heart sings!) . . . it’s so rich. One could argue that it’s too rich. Byatt gives us stories within stories within stories within stories. We get Ash and LaMotte’s letters to each other, wherein they discuss mythology and poetry. We get their original works, which are of course actually Byatt’s original works. We get so very much detail about the vagaries of modern academia, and the fights between feminist academics and “traditionalists.” It’s all just so very entwined.
Byatt was so brave to write this meta-romance. I honestly don’t know how she pulled it off. The greatest danger in works like this is that the supposed masterworks the characters are studying need to be excellent enough for the characters’ interest in them to seem just. Byatt does manage that, for the most part. As a writer and quasi-academic, I felt Byatt’s role so keenly. She wrote those pieces in a way that seemed so familiar to me. It’s odd to be a writer who works in a form and genre that is essentially lost to most readers. This book turned out to be such a fantastic outlet for many forms of the author’s creativity. I think I love it. I certainly love many aspects of it.
Virginia Leishman’s narration is one of the strongest aspects of the audiobook, and I think she truly saved the book for me. Whenever the details were too intricate or the infighting between the academics came too close to home, Leishman’s honeyed voice coaxed me back into the story. She truly has a gorgeous voice. Her diction is precise, her shifts from character to character are clear but not distracting, and her changes in accent reveal a great deal of acting and vocal skill. I will absolutely seek out more books she has narrated.