"I don't know why I feel so possessive about the damned things. They're not mine."
Possession is a novel of many layers, and the more you read it, the deeper under its skin you will get. On the surface it’s a romance, the story of two people who fall in love. Or, in this case, four people, as it details the lives of not just protagonists Roland Michell and Maud Bailey, but of the Victorian poets that they are studying, Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte. And in this way it is also a historical novel, painting a clear picture of Victorian life and language, with all its nuances explored.
It’s also a highly literary novel, not just in that it won the 1990 Booker Prize, or that it deals with fictional literary figures, but in that it is brimming with literary references. Novelists and thinkers, titles of books and plays, snatches of poems and quotes from critics abound on every page. This is a book that makes you want to read. And the learning doesn’t stop there. Artists, scientists, philosophers, sociologists, theologians – all play their part in giving this book depth. And then there is the mythical and mystical layer: legends of the old Norse and Greek gods, folk stories and fairytales, symbols and signs, all woven together and layered into the rich textual tapestry. But Possession – despite its weighty credentials – is far from dry. Indeed the whole story is also a gentle parody of classic detective fiction, with the characters – the scholars with their Dickensian names - turning over clues as fast as the reader turns pages, all in a race to solve the mystery.
For some readers, it's true, the vast amount of poetry will be too much, and in fact this was a criticism made to Byatt by the first publishers of Possession. But the poetry can be skipped without any real loss to the plot, and then returned to later, when the reader has fallen in love with the book. Because this is a book that makes you feel possessive. The story is not mine and yet I want to own it, to devour it, to keep it safe. It is both a touchstone and a jumping-off point for all other romantic novels. It is under my skin and I am possessed.
"Byatt is a gifted observer, able to discern the exact but minor details that bring whole worlds into being." New York Times
"Possession is a wonderful comedy of manners...the entire book is a clever joke." The Guardian
"Possession is a gripping and compulsively readable novel." GoodReads