Book Review || Possession by AS Byatt

Possession is an extraordinary novel, twisted and melded around an invented poet and poetess’ love affair. The history in the novel is finely detailed, making the pair utterly believable and protagonists Roland and Maud’s journey to finding the truth of these literary figures and the truth about themselves is captivating.

Bearing in mind that this is a very academic novel, it is filled with poetry, epistolic writing, and even fairy tales. And thus it is also filled with the themes that English Studies is all about, such as identity, gender, and criticism. I enjoyed the novel immensely because of these aspects, as an English student, but this novel is not for everyone, especially if they have no interest in such questions and themes.

The novel is also about possession: who holds possession, who has the right to hold possession, what constitutes possession, what and who can be possessed.

It is this question of possession that gets Roland into trouble in the first place. He comes across undiscovered drafts of letters written by his idol, RH Ash, to some unknown woman. Here the question of possession of artefacts comes in: it is his discovery - does it make the letters his? Do they belong to Ash’s family? Should they belong to England? Should they belong to Mortimer Cropper, a man known as having the most complete Ash collection in the world. If not, to whom should they belong? Roland takes the letters, determined to solve his discovered mystery.

After some research, he decides the only woman to whom the letters could be addressed was Christabel Lamotte, a poetess in her own right but who is believed to have partnered with another woman. Roland decides to investigate Lamotte and meets Maud, who happens to be a relative of Christabel’s sister.

Together they uncover the truth of the letters but the mystery only deepens and it becomes something that possesses them as much as they attempt to possess it.

Filled with discussions about postmodernism, femininity, gender, liminality, and other academic interests, one of the novel’s themes is boundaries and the crossing of invisible thresholds. The women in the novel all have this boundary. Christabel Lamotte’s choosing to live with a woman was a way of living a life away from men. Maud, along with Leonora Stern and Beatrice Nest, also have their own boundaries. For Nest, it is her figure, which she has determinedly disfigured to gain the least attention from men. Heartbroken Maud uses her disguised and tightly wound hair to remind herself to be at all times in control. And it is men who attempt to cross these thresholds - albeit amiably - and it is seen as an assault by these women. They are all like Ellen Ash, who was unable to allow her husband entry to her body, and so fear the real entry of men into their lives and personal spaces. Even Roland has his own threshold to cross: that of his own self-deprecation. It is only once he crosses this boundary that he sees himself and allows himself to cross it.

The book also questions how our identities are so shaped by our ideologies that we sometimes do not see what is right in front of us: Beatrice, Roland, and Maud are so wrapped up in analysing the world and making everything fit into their theories and beliefs that they forget to consider to live. Roland and Maud eventually fall in love because they come to see through their own constructed boundaries into each other's realities.

While this highly-acclaimed novel won two book prizes and was made into a film, I believe that it will be very difficult for the average reader to remain interested. I highly-recommend this book for readers who habitually close-read and for readers who are looking for  unanswerable questions and philosophising about the answers. It is indeed a romance, but a higher grade romance that needs a bit of academic history to get through without losing the plot.

I watched the film after reading the book, and it left out much of the academics of the matter, instead becoming a romantic adventure centred around the mystery of lost letters and overlooking the aspects of identity and possession that the novel is inspired by. In essence, the academics of the story were erased, turning it into a run-of-the-mill love story.

Even more disappointingly, the bookishness that made Maud and Roland find a kindred spirit in each other was removed entirely. Roland was altered from a distracted and academic Briton to a stereotypical American, making vulgar jokes at every opportunity and being a typical 'man'. The writer of the film, and of the book, too, believed this was necessary to make Roland work on screen, but it is telling that he had to be turned into Maud's opposite for them to fall in love, that he had to become the everyman to appeal to moviegoers. Besides, there was no way that Hollywood would allow a lost man to be Maud's love interest.

This is not to say the film was bad, of course, just not the same. But how often are books and films the same in their readers’ eyes?


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