Oh boy, it seems Virgin in the Garden wasn’t large enough of a stage for Byatt to perform her one-woman show of intellectual capacity. 12 years later, she’s back with Possession a Booker-winning novel about writers infatuated with writers.
There’s a story here so that Byatt has an excuse for her unabashed attempt to be clever. A mediocre scholar, languishing in the pits of academia and personal finance discovers documents about a the life of a famous poet which lead him on a trail through literature and landscape. On the way, he teams up with a female scholar of much higher standing, by which plot device, he has access to all sorts of things he otherwise wouldn’t.
Implausible hunches turn out, in pretty much every case, to be correct and of course there are some rival academics who are far less virtuous who they have to beat to the holy grail. The ending is all tied up nicely in very few pages which is entirely predictable for a novel which is after all, not really about the plot, but an opportunity for the novelist to dabble in a wide range of literary genres while parading her impressive grasp of the breadth of English literature.
The result of constructing the foundation of a thriller and then proceeding to build a metaphysical paeon to poetry was, for me, less than satisfying. The thriller is a bit of a mess with characters who are really no more than charicatures and a denouement which is extremely contrived. The life and loves of Henry Ash, the poet that Byatt creates, would have sufficed on its own even with the long-winded and tedious poetry that litters the book. But the two parts together simply get in each other’s way.
There’ll be a lot in here that the die-hard literature fan will go for. I found it overblown.