Monday, April 14, 2008
Today's book review is for Possession, by A.S. Byatt.
"Literary critics make natural detectives," says Maud Bailey, heroine of a mystery where the clues lurk in university libraries, old letters, and dusty journals. Together with Roland Michell, a fellow academic and accidental sleuth, Maud discovers a love affair between the two Victorian writers the pair has dedicated their lives to studying: Randolph Ash, a literary great long assumed to be a devoted and faithful husband, and Christabel La Motte, a lesser-known "fairy poetess" and chaste spinster. At first, Roland and Maud's discovery threatens only to alter the direction of their research, but as they unearth the truth about the long-forgotten romance, their involvement becomes increasingly urgent and personal. Desperately concealing their purpose from competing researchers, they embark on a journey that pulls each of them from solitude and loneliness, challenges the most basic assumptions they hold about themselves, and uncovers their unique entitlement to the secret of Ash and La Motte's passion.
And my two cents:
At times, the plethora of mediums in which the author speaks can be overwhelming...this one book includes straight-forward narrative, exerpts of fictitious literary criticism, poetry, epic poetry, letters, journal entries, more straight-forward narrative between non-contemporary characters....it can be overwhelming. But one cannot help but be impressed by the sheer *believability* the author is able to exude, whether she's creating fictional 19th century epic poetry, or describing the investigations of modern scholars. The one place where I felt this book was weak was in her attempt to create a "new version of love" in which two people can remain cool and separate, unemotional, and yet still conduct an affair. I never felt any kinship or enthusiasm towards the contemporary romance for this reason.
Also, Byatt's philosophizing can get rather heavy-handed in a book that is already rather overwhelming. Don't be surprised if you have to skip certain segments of this book, but try not to skip too much of the journal entries or the poetry, as both are enjoyable and well written.
As far as applicability to the Pre-Raphaelites, the link is more indirect, although names of movers and shakers in the P.R.B. are mentioned throughout, but the *tone* of the book feels rather Pre-Raphaelite, as the poets and artists of the day dealt with a lot of the same issues.