Possession by A.S. Byatt

Title: Possession
Author: A.S. Byatt
Published in 1990

Plot Summary from Goodreads:

Possession is an exhilarating novel of wit and romance, at once an intellectual mystery and triumphant love story. It is the tale of a pair of young scholars researching the lives of two Victorian poets. As they uncover their letters, journals, and poems, and track their movements from London to Yorkshire—from spiritualist séances to the fairy-haunted far west of Brittany—what emerges is an extraordinary counterpoint of passions and ideas.

I don’t even know where to begin with this book. I bought a used copy from Abebooks because it’s on my Round 2 Classics Club list, and I’ve been meaning to reread it. I read it for the first time decades ago, around the time that it won the Booker Prize. I remember really loving it when I first read it, and I loved it even more this time around.

This book is everything I want in a piece of literary fiction. I love Victorian novels anyway – you’ll often find me reading Trollope or Gaskell or one of the Brontes or something by Wilkie Collins (less so Dickens because my relationship with Dickens is complicated) – so reading a book about a pair Victorian poets was already going to be something that would work really well for me.

I also love a well-done dual timeline, although that particular device has gotten to the point where it is sadly overused by people whose writing chops are inadequate to manage it. This one moves back and forth between the Christabel/Randolph Ash timeline and the present with Roland & Maud. I almost always like the historical timeline better, but Byatt’s character development is so good that I enjoyed the present timeline as much as the historical stuff.

Which brings me to the academic literary detective work. That is like some sort of catnip to me. I love it desperately and find it incredibly intriguing. Finding connections between authors, their works, other authors, mining for clues, that’s just so much fun. This book had that in spades.

I also have to just note how incredibly well-done this book is. It is replete with an entire, collateral, body of work of these two poets in what I would call the “evidentiary” portions of the book. The letters, the poems, wow. She spends very little time narrating the lives of Christabel LaMotte and Randolph Ash and yet, through their letters and poems, they spring off the page in certain ways and yet remain ciphers in others. I absolutely loved this – it felt so real.

The book does start out a bit slow, but the second half is phenomenal. By the end, I couldn’t put it down. The final reveal wasn’t really a surprise – I’d been suspecting something along the lines of the ending for a good chunk of the book (and, of course, I have read it before, although my recollection was dimmed by the passage of time).

Anyway, I absolutely loved this book. I’m half inclined to just open it up at the beginning and read it again, so that I can savor the structure and the clues once more, now that I know where it is all headed. I probably won’t, but I am mentally penciling this book in for a reread in six months or so just for that reason.

The Game of Kings by Dorothy Dunnet

Title: The Game of Kings
Author: Dorothy Dunnett
Published in 1961

Plot summary from Goodreads: Dunnett introduces her irresistible hero Francis Crawford of Lymond, a scapegrace nobleman of elastic morals and dangerous talents whose tongue is as sharp as his rapier. In 1547 Lymond is returning to his native Scotland, which is threatened by an English invasion. Accused of treason, Lymond leads a band of outlaws in a desperate race to redeem his reputation and save his land.

I read this as a buddy read in January, and it has stayed with me for a considerable time since I finished. It was really something of a tour de force, and I’m still certain that I missed a significant percentage of the plot, and even more of the literary, historical and linguistic allusions.

I really did enjoy this book, and will definitely read on in the series. Dunnett is a fearless writer – she didn’t hesitate to put her characters (all of them) through a series of trials, some of which were downright awful. She killed off one character of whom I was extremely fond. I was, and still am, shocked at the almost casual speed of that particular death.

Someone else mentioned the women characters and how wonderfully well-rounded they were. I totally agree. I loved Lady Sybilla, especially at the end.

Dunnett also very much respected the intellect of her readers (maybe sometimes too much, from my perspective, ha). She packed the book with nuggets for the discerning reader to find. I’m sure that I missed a lot of them. She also just takes off with the story and proceeds apace, reaching a breakneck speed toward the end, when the revelations and the action are flying.

The final reveal wasn’t particularly shocking to me – I think that she had set it up throughout the course of the book so that it was pretty natural. This was really a swashbuckling adventure, and not a mystery, so she wasn’t so much trying to palm the ace as keep it away from the characters view for a while.

Of all of the characters, Lymond remains the most unclear to me. I still don’t feel like I have a real handle on who he is – he played so many parts that he almost doesn’t have a true identity. He is infinitely iinteresting, and I’d like to get to know him better.

I’m not sure when I will get to the next book, but I will get to the next book. This book got all of the stars from me, and I suspect I would enjoy it just as much on reread.