Review: Possession, by A. S. Byatt

It's very difficult for me to be objective about the books I really and truly love. My concise, spoiler-free commentary on Inkdeath realllly pushed me, and now I'm following up with Possession, which I have been in love with for seven years. It would be like me trying to be objective about Austen novels - I just can't do it. Rip-offs on Austen? Done. Casually tossed-in Austen reference? Done. But I can't, with any kind of scholarly respect or pride, present an objective review or account of an Austen novel unless I have something to compare it with say, in discussions with co-workers, etc. This book holds the same reigns to my heart.

The film was released in 2002 and, somehow, someway, my parents rented it in 2003 and we watched it at home. And I loved it. And I bought myself the DVD. In college, I bought myself the book and fell even more in love with it. Byatt's attention to detail, her sense of parallelism and her gift for natural poetry is all evident in this one big masterpiece. It reads as part-detective novel, part-biography and part-academic research.

Not only has Byatt created our modern-day characters, but she sets them off to learn everything about characters from the past who, while they don't exist in the real world, have as much presence (and primary sources!) as someone who did. Byatt has written all of this, and that gives the novel a structure that is not only multi-layered, but staggeringly beautiful.

So often - in novels, in histories, in film - Victorian England is captured as a kind of bleak, two-tone, melancholy kind of place with corsets and high collars and long sleeves.
The past is hot
But what Byatt gives us here is a sense of the flesh - of this corporeal possession that we all have. She breathes life into these characters in such a way that they appear almost mythically, fallen gods and goddesses, even. Melusina, revealed. Instead she makes the modern characters feel more austere, more sanitary and stark. Colder, really, than one might expect. But it serves to showcase the transformation that takes place once the past begins to reveal itself - the effect, almost, of lighting a candelabra in a small, dark room.

One teeny word on the ending, without spoiling it for all: If you've ever seen the film, you know that the ending is very hopeful-hopeful-omg yes hopeful-and-then-oh...oh...oh, well....oh, that's. okay that's nice, but....oh. The novel is not subject to the liminalities of the director's camera. That ending of the film is there more for the weight of the final image, and for the heartache of the audience.

The novel ends very similarly (the film is - with minor additions and subtractions and condensing - EXTREMELY true to the novel, and I heartily give Neil LaBute, David Henry Hwang and Laura Jones the credit for their screenplay which is so heartwrenchingly good) but instead of melancholy at the finality of the last bit, there is satisfaction. Sad, but immense satisfaction - a sense of the last piece of the puzzle finally squeezing into the center once the other pieces have been laid and fitted in. And while the movie makes my heart ache like any movie can, the book made me weep...both times.

And that's why I think that I cannot be truly objective on this point--there is too much emotionally at stake for me to really be objective. I'll leave it to the professionals. My so-called review is "Fire bad. Tree pretty. Go read book."


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