My rating: 5 of 5 stars
AS Byatt’s Possession begins with a quote from Hawthorne about the genre of Romance. She and Hawthorne have something a little more meritorious than bodice rippers in mind when they use the term, but there is still a sense she’s playing down her book by making it a genre piece. If that is so, the book itself makes a fine case for the redemption of the Romance a venue for top-notch fiction. It is a beguiling recreation of the Victorian outlook and a portrait of academia that reads as a more sympathetic version of Tom Wolfe.
The book hinges around the efforts of two English academics as they pursue the possibility that Lord Henry Ash, a fictional Victorian poet famous for his ability to write in different voices, had a relationship with Christabel LaMotte, a less well known poet of the age. As a part of the project Byatt writes snippets from their work, a marvelous feat of ventriloquism in itself, as she portrays some of the characters of our own age: American and British academics who embody certain stereotypes (pushy, overtly sexual, possessive Americans and inhibited Britishers afflicted by class considerations abound) even as they breathe believably.
I’ll leave the pleasures of discovering the plot to the reader (there are some moments that raise eyebrows) and end with the idea that good books martial a story with believable characterizations and plots points. The best sort of books do that even as they pique your interest in the things that interest the author herself, whether it is Victorian poetry or an age as a whole. AS Byatt’s Possession is one of the latter, even if she plays coy and calls her book a Romance.