Review #40: Possession

Twenty forms of writing all rolled into one



A. S. Byatt’s Possession is by far the most structurally diverse book within the Well-Read Man reading project. Written just over two decades ago, in 1990, the novel covers several genres, and includes content that ranges from unedited, personal diary entries to scholarly journal articles.

The story revolves around a hundred-year-old mystery: Did famous nineteenth century author Randolph Ash have an intimate relationship with his contemporary Christabel LaMotte? That’s what literary scholars Roland Michell and Maud Bailey want to find out. As they unearth previously unknown letters and documents, and travel between England and the Continent, a half-dozen other researchers, some of whom want the glory and fame of discovery for themselves, force Roland and Maud into an ever-closer relationship.

As a novel, the book tells an enjoyable story of two people growing to care for each other in the midst of their normal vocations. But what makes this book classics material is the extent to which the author draws on multiple forms of content to tell the story. Beyond the core narrative, the two-dozen or so chapters include newspaper articles, poems, diary entries, peer-reviewed journal articles (complete with footnotes), fairy tales, love letters, and scribbled notes. The materials purport to come from multiple authors, mostly from characters in the book. But in truth, Byatt writes everything. She even invented epigraphs for the start of every chapter, transferring authorship to those in the book’s dramatis personae. Her command of each included fiction and nonfiction genre is impressive. In short, the book is a research nerd’s dream.

The invented research materials do consume a large part of the text. But for those not so inclined to spend time studying like a university professor, the book also includes the basic forms needed for mystery, romance, and historical fiction genres. All in all, it’s a good book, one that will quickly take “possession” of any interested reader.

The Well-Read Man Project

For more information about this book, visit its Well-Read Man Project page.


  1. Loved this book! Love it, love it, love it. It took me several false starts before I completed it several years ago; since then, I’ve reread it twice. Wasn’t the ending wonderful? And all the bits in between? Nothing else by Byatt has stirred my heart the way this novel did.

    By the way, I see in the upper corner you have ’21 Days Left’. Do you plan on continuing in your journey or starting a new one? I hope you don’t stop completely.

  2. Thank you for the encouragement. The initial 50-book project will end on June 30. But I will continue to review the remaining books, and there are new things to announce starting this summer. Keep reading!


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