Friday, May 6, 2011

Review: Possession (in audio) ~ by A. S. Byatt



Review by Shellie:  Possession ~ by A.S. Byatt  (in audio, performed by Virginia Leishman)

A multilayered award winning tale of interwoven romances. Set in two different centuries and connected ingeniously through letters and journals. It has elements which include faeries, myth, poetry, science, feminism, lgbt, and Victoriana.

Setting:  Primarily set in the late 1980s in London we have a variety of academics whose interests lie in a celebrated poet’s life and work - Randolph Henry Ash. He is a source of intense exploration and historical interest for these scholars, as they research his body of work in their highly competitive environment. From their findings on his life during the mid to late 1800’s it appears Ash led a very quiet and uneventful life. But as one researcher finds out via misplaced letters, they are very wrong.

Thus begins the recovery of the missing pieces that will fill in the blanks for this group of academics, who become ever more obsessed as they struggle to be the first to piece together the juicy details that are alluded to in the new findings. As two of the scholars try and answer their questions they find themselves traipsing to various areas in England and France to find the answers.

Sound simple? Not a chance - there is so much more. This convoluted story will take you back to a very different time, but there is also a wealth of incredible subplots and threads.

Thoughts:  I started and abandoned Possession several times. Giving up on try number two, I thought the writing to be inaccessible, overly intellectual and boringly academic. Now I am thinking one develops “reading muscles”, and considering my years of hiatus from reading fiction I was out of shape. Having read bits about the book’s elements since, I realized the book fits inside a favorite circle of my interests. I gave it another try in audio.

This unabridged audio version was read by Virginia Leishman, and she moderates her voice for each of the character’s while changing accents - ranging from English to Scottish to American and with a believable voice for changes in gender. Excellently done, my only “complaint” is that the narrator’s voice is so pleasant she lulled me to sleep on various occasions. So listening while tired or sleepy is not recommended.

The novel has some interesting elements and literary techniques interwoven inside it. These include threads about fairies, what appears to be paranormal events, and scientific research – including the collection of insect, plant and sea life (all popular with the gentry during Victorian times). The author also expertly uses several literary devices; for example, the usage of poetry as a preclusion to the chapters called epigraphs. Through this method the author has written and included some complex poetry. Lastly the story is told via letters and journal entries making it epistolary. 

Not a fluffy romance, it is a complex, realistic yet sad romance – where real life choices and their consequences are exemplified and I liked that it does not end with everyone living happily ever after. In summary, Possession is out of the ordinary, intellectual and academic – making it a book that not everyone will enjoy. It is also descriptive, metaphorical, dense and an amazing work of fiction. It deserves a rare 5 stars in my opinion.

US|UK|Canada; Duration: 22 hours, 45 minutes Dec 21, 2004; Unabridged; HarperCollins – HarperAudio  Awards: Best Audio Books - Library Journal; Man Booker Prize for Fiction -1990.

The comments that I received on Layers of Thought around the review are that some readers are put off by the academic aspects of the book, others said it was their favorite book. I get both completely.

Emily if I make any money from this link I will mail you a book of your choice.

Moonrat this five star is all your fault.

I have a few that are in the review construction stage – one since November of 2010. Yes I am a slug: Lolita, Wuthering Heights, and am currently listening to Dorian Gray. So catching up.


moonrat said...

Ok, I love this book to death. I'm so glad this time around it worked out for you.

So the BBC recently released a bunch of backlist audio interviews, and they have this one of Byatt re: POSSESSION

I think you might find bits interesting--one point is that Byatt claims she doesn't feel a reader is obliged to read the ENTIRE book. Her publishers wanted her to take out eg the long fake-Victorian poems; she said no, her reader could skip if they didn't feel like reading; that's the reader's prerogative. (Wow! How empowered I suddenly feel.)

Anyway as an audio reader, you can't really skip. But maybe you need to less?

Shellie - Layers of Thought said...

I don't give many 5 stars, so have to agree.

Wow - cut out the poems! that's part of why its so wonderful....
I guess if you win big awards you get to say yes or no to the publisher. Not everyone wants to read a fluffy romance or read an abridged version.

As for the audio - I listened on the iPod which allows you to skip. Its tricky but doable. But why?
And yes I do think listening is so much easier. I love it.

Thanks for the link - off to check it out.

Briony said...

I struggled so much with this book, but it's so worth it in the end. I'm glad you liked it!

Shellie - Layers of Thought said...

Briony -
I had problems in the beginning which is why I abounded it so many times - that's why I opted for audio which is so much easier for me. And yes I agree it was worth it.

Moonrat -
Enjoyed the Byatt BBC chat. Nice way to end the week.

Fresh Garden said...

This book is the best of the best.

Shellie - Layers of Thought said...

Fresh Garden -
I really enjoyed the heck out of this book. I am now working on "Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell".

It has that English Victorian/Regency setting with fairies and historical too.