Thursday, November 6, 2008

Reviewed: Possession

AS Byatt's Possession won England's prestigious Man Booker Prize in 1990. Which just goes to show that while Americans might have our fair share of baggage brought over from the Motherland, not every taste made the crossing.

Byatt's heroes are sleuths/academics, a hybrid familiar to the American reader ever since Dan Brown stumbled upon an idea in a Papal audience. Roland Mitchell and Maud Bailey are self-consciously witty, subversively smart, oppressed by the sexual - in short, quintessential Victorian scholars, with the added and appropriate kink that they come from quaintly-named parts of the British Isles.

The story starts out slow. Roland, an impoverished postgrad, bogs down in his studies because of his long-term girlfriend. The fire has long since gone out, but Roland has neither the heart nor the balls to end it. Meanwhile, Maud Bailey is a feminist English professor whose best friends are all lesbians.

Roland and Maud (and doesn't that sound like the title for a children's series set in Surrey?) meet because they discover a clandestine romantic affair that occurred years ago between Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte. Ash and LaMotte were Victorian poets. Roland is an Ash scholar, Maud specializes in LaMotte.

In between tramping about the countryside, driving expensive cars and running away to Brittany, Roland and Maud swap sexual fantasies. Turns out they both hanker to sleep in a clean white bed. Entirely alone.

While the romantic subplot may lack in intensity ('slow burn' would be a hyperbolic description) the plot eventually delivers. Roland and Maud trace the Ash/LaMotte affair through a series of passionate letters, sad excerpts from Ash's wife's diary, and several suggestive poems. It all comes to a climactic end when R&M interrupt a grave robbery set during a hurricane, someone turns out to be someone else's lovechild, and everyone has a good 'tut-tut.'

Unlike some authors, who would leave the original texts to the reader's imagination, Byatt writes the Ash/LaMotte letters, several of Ash and LaMotte's poems and the diary entries. These primary sources make up entire chapters of her text, creating the Ash/LaMotte story even as Roland and Maud uncover it.

Obvious throughout is Byatt's respect - one might even call it reverence - for literature itself. If the Victorian drama of her final scene is lost on some readers, it certainly wasn't lost on Byatt herself. She deliberately calls her novel a "romance," a throwback to an era when people used drawing rooms, nations had colonies and a woman's most prized possession was her "virtue," which she inevitably "surrendered."

Read it if you like: the director's commentary version of movies, Jane Eyre
Skip it if you prefer: the Da Vinci Code

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