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Read of the Week: Possession by AS Byatt

Written by The Reader, 17th May 2017

Our Read of the Week comes recommended by Monitoring and Evaluation Manager Jen who has chosen Possession by our Patron, AS Byatt.

Possession is a novel that's at once playfully inter-textual, rewarding, complex, theoretical, moreish – a love story and detective thriller rolled into one.

The narrative sets the lives of researchers Roland and Maud against those of their research subjects - two Victorian poets whose relationship only comes to light through the discovery of a letter by the somewhat hapless (and (in)distinctly unglamorous) Roland.

The personal iconographies of the four protagonists and the blind spots of their respective eras – late 20th Century academia's post-structuralist cynicism, cumbered with the legacy of Freud, and the battle between scientific, moral rationalism and superstition of the 1800s – fold into each other to create something that seems both essay and story, which revels in the excitement of intellectual discovery without neglecting the more immediate human pleasure of narrative reward.

The first time I read it – I'll admit – the slog through pages of Victorian poetry almost put me off. I am so glad I persevered. Possession is a book for life: a love letter to, and for, anyone who loves to read. I dare you not to fall in love right back.

"There are readings – of the same text – that are dutiful, readings that map and dissect, readings that hear a rustling of unheard sounds, that count grey little pronouns for pleasure or instruction and for a time do not hear golden or apples. There are personal readings, that snatch for personal meanings, I am full of love, or disgust, or fear, I scan for love, or disgust, or fear. There are – believe it – impersonal readings – where the mind's eye sees the lines move onward and the mind's ear hears them sing and sing.

Now and then there are readings which make the hairs on the neck, the non-existent pelt, stand on end and tremble, when every word burns and shines hard and clear and infinite and exact, like stones of fire, like points of stars in the dark – readings when the knowledge that we shall know the writing differently or better or satisfactorily, runs ahead of any capacity to say what we know, or how. In these readings, a sense that the text has appeared to be wholly new, never before seen, is followed, almost immediately, by the sense that it was always there, that we the readers, knew it was always there, and have always known it was as it was, though we have now for the first time recognised, become fully cognisant of, our knowledge."

Possession, AS Byatt


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