Monday, September 13, 2010

Possession - A.S. Byatt

I read "The Children's Book" by Byatt not too long ago, drawn in by the cover art, and totally enthralled by it. I was also a little confused by it, as literary fiction is way outside the realm of what I ordinarily read, and so I went looking for other people's opinions on the internet, and was directed by many random strangers to go read Possession. And so I did. Because I always do what the internet tells me to do. Ahem.

Then I stumbled across a cheap copy in a used book store, and the rest is history. In a lovely coincidence, Emily over at Evening All Afternoon was also reading it at the same time, and just happened to post a review on the very same day that I finished reading Possession. Which was just awesome, since I had totally missed many literary allusions, and parallels with other poets.

Possession is a couple love stories, all wrapped up in a mystery. It is set in the 1980s, where two academics, one studying Christabel LaMotte and the other studying Randolph Henry Ash, start investigating a possible correspondence between these two authors, and in the process uncover a mystery. It is gorgeously written with lots of fictional excerpts from the various authors and their critics. Initially I was rather baffled by the logic of studying the personal lives of long dead authors, but by the end of this story I understood how it would help to interpret their writings, and why this would be desirable. Everything written, has been written for a particular audience, and so understanding the audience helps to understand what has been written. But also, understanding what is written can help you to learn more about the audience. It can really wind up looking like morbid curiosity, but interesting things do come out of it.

The story is lovely, but one of the most fascinating things for me was seeing the process of research in a field that is not my own. And seeing the effect which the internet has had on research. In the story, the characters have to write each other letters. Answering machines don't exist, personal cell phones, email -- the characters wind up having to write each other letters, and leave messages which don't necessarily get delivered. People have to travel in order to look at new manuscripts - they can't just be scanned and emailed. And then you get to contrast this with the period these scholars are studying - where there wasn't even a telephone - communications were either letters, or face to face.

The whole book was beautiful. I just loved the bits of poetry interspersed. I have a lot of trouble reading poetry, so it was rough going at times, but totally worth it, especially since I would then get to read various characters discussing the poetry, and see how fuller understanding of the poets lives led to new views of the poem. Totally fascinating and a lot of fun. I suspect that reading poetry takes more effort than I usually go to while reading, but now I see that that effort might be really worthwhile.

My favorite part was the ending. Byatt (based on my reading of two books) is just fabulous at writing endings. There is a definite villain in the story...he isn't really all that bad, but he certainly seems like a villain to the other characters. In the final scene he is doing something villainous that is going to actually provide the solution to the mystery, and the rest of the characters rationalize letting him go through with it -- they figure that unless he's caught in the act he can't possibly get punished, which is probably true -- but they are all also deeply involved and desperately wanting a resolution to the mystery as well. Byatt manages to set things up so that in the end they actually have to rescue the villain, and then they all resolve the mystery together. It felt deeply satisfying to me that the ending involved all the characters working together rather than competing with each other. Without the villain, the rest of them may not ever have solved the mystery, at best they would have had to wait years for official permission, but he was willing to do something highly unethical, and they all benefited as a result. Yet it was clear that he would be punished for unearthing the evidence. It was a really interesting moral situation. The resolution to the mystery was, itself, deeply satisfying, which just makes the whole book even better.

I suspect this is going to be a fun book to re-read. Now that I know what happens, I'm looking forward to seeing if I can pick up on some of the hints that get dropped earlier on. But I think I will go dig up some more of her stories first.

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