In praise of older books: Possession by AS Byatt (1990)

Week 40: A year of Julie Parsons’ favourite books

Possession is not just a novel; it's a collection of poetry, letters, journals and diaries, each with their own distinct voice. A tour de force of writerly skill, beyond the usual demands of fiction, written by a literary ventriloquist.

It begins in the Reading Room in the London Library. Part-time research assistant Roland Michell, "a small man with very soft, startling black hair", finds letters hidden inside a book. They were written by celebrated Victorian poet Randolph Henry Ash to Cristobel LaMotte, a lesser-known writer, suggesting an adulterous affaire. Roland's heart beats faster.

He seeks out LaMotte expert, Dr Maud Bailey. She’s everything Roland is not: tall, blonde, beautiful, cold, intellectually secure, but, in common with Roland, terrified of life. They join forces to find the truth of Ash and LaMotte, jealously hiding their quest from other Ash researchers.

Byatt casts a cold eye on academia. “(T)he cut-throat ideological battles of structuralism, post-structuralism, Marxism, deconstruction and feminism”; the women lecturers who “discussed with students . . . smelling . . . of musk, of unadulterated feminist sweat . . . the changing image of women”; the activities of Prof Cropper of Albuquerque, “his mouth pursed, but pursed in American,” relentlessly pursuing Ash, the poet and man.

Possession is a rabbit hole of a novel, down which the reader tumbles. Studded with images of water, hair, grass, rocks, sea anemones, skin, gloves, jewellery, it is also an examination of physical beauty. As Maud says, "People treat you as a kind of possession if you have a certain sort of good looks".

Roland and Maud follow in the footsteps of Ash and LaMotte. The poets’ passion rubs off. The small man with dark hair and the tall blonde woman fall into a feather bed. “Roland, finally. . . entered and took possession of all her white coolness that grew warm against him.”

"My warm your cold's food
Your chill breath my air
When our white mouths meet
It mingles – there" –
C LaMotte

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