Have you ever found yourself quoting Homer or Aristotle or Milton in ordinary conversation?
Have you ever sat and stared at a tree for an hour, trying to figure out what it means?
Have you ever suffered the indignities of a Friday night “intervention,” wherein your friends wrenched a volume of T.S. Eliot from your hands and forced you to go to a party with them?
Have you ever envisioned a life largely spent in libraries and then thought: “gee whiz. That sounds fantastic”?
Then boy oh boy, have I got a book for you.
I’ve been sitting here for five minutes trying to figure out how to outline the plot without giving away any of the story, and the best I can come up with is this: in the most rudimentary interpretation possible, A.S. Byatt’s Possession is the story of two English academics whose careers, and lives, converge as they make some unexpected discoveries about the poets who are the objects of their respective research. And even on that basic level, the plot has plenty of color: secret correspondence, meddling friends, nineteenth-century séances. Also unscrupulous Americans—because what good is an English book without a few unscrupulous Americans?
So any ordinary Joe could find plenty to interest him in the unfolding of the book’s surface-level story. For the more erudite (which is just a snobby way of saying “nerdier”) among its readers, though, Possession is a treasure trove of allusion and evocation that lends both to the delight of recognizing from whence a borrowed idea has come, and the fascination of attempting to follow an original one to its conclusions. After the manner of Dorothy Sayers or even—dare I say it?—Fyodor Dostoevsky, Byatt has written a book that purports to be about the solution of a particular mystery and turns out to be about everything.
Possession is about scholarship; it’s about the way that life and art shape each other. It’s about generosity and parsimony and greed. It’s about literature and history and philosophy and theology and biology and feminist criticism. It’s about passion, and friendship, and love. And it asks the question that matters more than any of the other questions: what does it mean to be human? This book is beautiful, and it will make you think.
It wouldn’t do, however, to emphasize the substance of Possession without acknowledging its form, so I ought to also highlight Byatt’s skill as a writer. For one thing, her characters are absolutely vibrant. Alongside the two contemporary scholars and their centuries-dead poetical counterparts (all four complex and fascinating), Byatt develops a bevy of minor characters with an unusual range and depth of real humanity, eliciting as much interest in their motivations as in the emergence of major plot developments. Even more remarkable, though, is her extraordinary versatility. In the course of Possession, Byatt exercises an amazingly broad range of genre and narrative style: everything from long chains of letters and chunks of private journals to short stories and excerpts of epic poetry. The ease with which Possession shifts from one style to another without disruption is certainly a partial product of the fact that two of her protagonists are writers themselves, but no mediocre novelist could produce a work so broad in range and yet so seamless. Byatt’s ability to develop the voices of her characters through their own writing is a testament to her talent.
In short, Possession is literary cocaine for nerds. It is, without question, on the more demanding half of the “how much concentration does this book require?” spectrum (which ranges, in case you’re wondering, from Dr. Seuss on one end to Wittgenstein on the other). If you’re looking for something airy to take to the beach, this is probably not the right choice. But if you really love to read, and you’re looking for fiction that will capture your imagination and engage your mind, I cannot recommend Possession highly enough.
Miriel Thomas Reneau is a member of the Humane Pursuits editorial board. She has served as an ISI Honors Fellow, a John Jay Fellow, and an American Enterprise Institute policy analyst in constitutional studies. She endures many a sleepless night, though reports differ on whether this is due to her concern over federal courts’ equity jurisdiction or her addiction to caramel lattes. In her daytime hours, she can be found defending St. Augustine against Calvinist co-optation and T. S. Eliot against everyone.