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An uphill struggle…finishing Possession: A Romance by A. S. Byatt.

Ding dong…the book is read. Yes, I have finally pored my way through Possession‘s final pages. The end, it turned out, was infinitely more readable than the beginning. To continue the metaphor from my previous blog…the light at the end of the tunnel did not go out, but got brighter (hurrah!), although the meandering tunnel was significantly too long.

Indeed, I am happy to say that the story ends well, the plot becomes engrossing and engaging and as a reader you can’t turn the pages fast enough and Byatt deserves praise for this. However, the unrelenting uphill struggle of the novel’s first two hundred pages is hard to forgive or forget. Byatt’s is a brilliant and carefully plotted story, which, in my opinion, is spread far too thinly. As a reader I think we have the right to expect a healthy golden thread of plot and character development throughout every page of a good book, unfortunately Byatt has saved all of her golden thread for Possession‘s conclusion, thus diminishing the chances that her readers may ever last out until the end. I will go so far as to say that, overall, I enjoyed reading Possession, but I say this with a considered and slightly reticent voice. Yes, Byatt rewards her readers with romance, mystery, intrigue, love and loss…but she tempers this by demanding endurance, determination, blind faith and hope – a lot to ask from a first-timer like me.

The story’s themes are clearly stated from the outset…possession and romance; and it is undeniable that Byatt explores them with brilliance. The book addresses possession on every level…whether that be possession of another, possession of belongings, possession of our own destiny, possession of the words we say and write, or even possession of our cultural ancestry. Byatt deftly interweaves the theme of ownership throughout her entire narrative. In fact, Possession put me in mind of a poem (‘To Love is Not to Possess‘ by James Kavanaugh) I read at a friend’s wedding recently which began, ‘To love is not to possess, to own or imprison, nor to lose oneself in another…’ this, I think, encapsulates the lesson Byatt teaches us (perhaps a little more succinctly too, although admittedly with far less storytelling).

Would I recommend this book to others? I’m not sure. To my more literary friends, quite probably (along with a warning of possible boredom at the outset). But what about everyone else? I don’t think this is a book for the mass market. Its long passages of poetry and literary criticism might leave many a reader cold. Its constant allusions to classical myth and legend and its cold and often aloof characters might leave the average warm-blooded reader of the 21st century feeling as though they are being held at arm’s length. It seems to me that Byatt’s publishers have done their darndest to disguise the true nature of what lies within the covers of this book, my edition at least features images of seduction from the film adaptation of the book and proudly displays reviews from mass market publications such as Cosmopolitan magazine (that Legally Blonde favourite) declaring that this book is “a triumphant success on every level” – although, truth be told, Cosmo also describe the book as “massive” and “complex” so perhaps a warning is in there.

I’m glad to have read Possession and equally glad to have finished it. As one of the rules I imposed upon myself when starting this blog was that I wouldn’t allow my fingers to creep back to my old favourites, it has been a real challenge for me to exclusively read Possession for the last couple of months. I have been so tempted to snatch Harry Potter or Tolkien off the bookshelf, but I have resisted. This book has undoubtedly lived up to its name, it has possessed my reading self for far longer than it deserved to. Whether this be my own fault for procrastinating (carrying the book around with me like a great white elephant in the room, spying it out of the corner of my eye and thinking ‘oh God, I really should try to read more of that…maybe I’ll just sort out my tax rebate first’ – I kid you not) or maybe the fault lies with the book itself, who knows. All I can say it this, a weight has lifted from my shoulders…and normally I mourn a recently finished book, like the loss of an old friend. Not so with Possession, I feel relieved.

Feeling slightly scarred by my recent experiences, I have opted for a shorter book next time, so that any pain it inflicts may be short-lived. I move on to J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye.

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Thoroughly unromanced…reading Possession: A Romance by A. S. Byatt.

They say ‘time flies when you’re having fun’…I wish I could say the last month of reading had soared past me, it has not. I have continued reading, albeit at the pace of a wounded snail – and yet I have not finished. This, I fear, is a book that could cure a bibliophile, and yet it is by no means a ‘bad book’.

Possession: A Romance trips along, almost blithely unaware of its reader. It makes no allowances for the less literary reader, it makes no apology for its hearty indulgence in all things academic, it is, one might argue, rather impressed by itself. But am I impressed? On the whole, no; although Byatt scatters just enough sparks of interest to keep me grudgingly turning the pages. Like a loved one who persuades you to try something you never wanted to, this book calls you on, assuring you that there’s something coming that’ll make all of this worthwhile…I only hope that’s real light I can see at the end of the metaphorical tunnel and not a bloody flame that Byatt will stamp out in the book’s final pages.

The book’s title purports it to be a romance, but are romance and love the same thing? I presumed so at the outset, but am beginning to question whether Byatt has chosen the word romance carefully and cunningly. So far, I have seen some very two-dimensional people profess feelings I am not convinced they feel. That is to say, I find their romance  unconvincing. This is not love as I know it, in fact I would go so far as to say that if it’s love you’re looking for I’d stick to Katie Fforde. At least you might find yourself vaguely able to relate to the characters, even if they do live in a smiley marshmallow world full of happy endings.

That brings me neatly to the topic of endings…the only thing I don’t know about this book…how will it end? I have my suspicions…I hope to be proved wrong. Currently my vision is this…that as I reach the novel’s end the light from Byatt’s flame will begin to die out, the sparks will cease to light the tunnel and I will find myself romanced by an author who holds in her possession a month (maybe two?) of my life. A month where I could quite probably have read every Katie Fforde novel ever published and thus be floating cosily along in a marshmallow bubble. My question is this…is it better to feel sick having devoured too many of Fforde’s sweet pages or to feel bitter having repeatedly forced Byatt down your throat?

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A slow, but promising start…beginning Possession: A Romance by A.S. Byatt.

Well, I’ve made a start on Possession, albeit a very slow one. I’ve found the book rather hard to ‘get into’, not helped of course by my being totally shattered after going back to full-time work.

It’s an odd opening to a novel, and a very literary and academic opening. Considering I’ve got an English degree and felt a tad ignorant when faced with all the literary references and academia cited, I’d imagine someone without said degree would feel more than a little lost. The characters so far all seem a little stuffy and, dare I say it (again!) rather self-absorbed, although judging by the reviews quoted on the cover and the all-round success of the book, I’m assuming the somewhat hard and superior exteriors of the characters are more easily penetrated as the story continues.

As I’ve said above, I’m ashamed and sorry to say that my reading so far has been of a plodding and lack-lustre quality; not helped my state of tiredness, and general inability to concentrate on anything requiring more than ten per cent of my sleep-craving brain. Although, as I read, I am starting to see a light at the end of the tunnel, the story is starting to stick to my mind – I find myself thinking about it while I wait for the kettle to boil, or while I wash my hair…this must, I think, be a good sign.

And so I read on…a slow, but promising start.

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Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert…giving women, wives and mothers a bad name.

I know, I know…it’s been a while. I have been away, although that usually means I read more books (but, then, perhaps that’s only where chick lit’s concerned). So, Madame Bovary? Yes, I have finally finished it. It’s taken an incredibly long time for a relatively short book and I’m not exactly sure who or what to blame. Yes, I have been rather lax and easily distracted, but simultaneously the book has done little to entice me to pick it up and has failed to sustain my attention when I have done.

What is it about ‘classic’ novels that stipulates they only contain characters who are intrinsically boring or bad people? – and sometimes, shock horror, a person who has the unhappy misfortune to be both boring and bad – a very unappealing combination! I thought this was going to be a book with a carefully woven plot which cleverly and perceptively revealed the feelings of a woman who has chosen her husband badly and lived to regret it; and, on paper, I suppose that’s what this story is about, but I was bitterly disappointed by so many aspects of the book that the plot has been rendered unappealing by belonging to the same pages. Madame Bovary is – no, I won’t mince my words – an ignorant, vain, self obsessed monster of a woman. In fact, she gives women, wives and mothers a thoroughly bad name; and she was created by a man, I can’t help thinking that some woman must have made herself very repugnant to Flaubert to make him create such an abomination. She ponces around the small French towns that the story inhabits thinking only of herself – and, believe me, she has an unaccountably ‘puffed up’ opinion of herself, imagining that life has somehow tricked her out of living the life of a Duchess and robbed her of the beautiful, expensive possessions that she so covets – and eventually buys, at the expense of her baby’s booties. No, not even the birth of a healthy, happy daughter can draw this stubbornly selfish woman out of her own self-obsession. Gradually she is overcome with a seething, vengeful anger towards her somewhat simple, but basically honest and good husband. She sneers at him, blames him for not earning more money with which to buy her fine things and flings herself from one extra marital affair to another. I was both infuriated and angered by her in equal measure from the moment she appeared on the page.

What of the novel’s plot and other characters though? Whilst certainly not inspiring such strong feelings as the eponymous heroine, they also are not what I would call ‘good people’. From Charles Bovary to Homais  (the apothecary in the story) almost every character introduced seems completely self-absorbed and out to further their own cause. Charles, though not an overtly bad person, plods through his life never bothering to consider the world from anyone’s perspective but his own, he is also so easily persuaded to one course or another that at points you simply want to shake him and tell him to use his brain. Where plot is concerned, by another pen perhaps this could have been an engaging story, although perhaps never gripping. It is a simple tale about rural people and their ordinary lives, but there’s no shame in such a plot and, invariably, it is such simple settings and plots which are able to expose the magic of everyday life and the gems found amongst ‘ordinary’ people; but these rewards were not to be gleaned from Madame Bovary, well, not for me, anyway.

I would not recommend Madame Bovary, unlike The Five People You Meet in Heaven, it presents a very poor picture of humanity and, were one to consider it accurate, could become more than a little depressing. To put it simply…I think people are intrinsically better than this. And ‘classic’ books, well after the last two, I won’t deny I’m becoming a little despondent – maybe I should’ve stuck to Jane Austen and Tolkien after all? But I refuse to be so easily beaten, especially by the horrendous Emma Bovary. If people are better than this, then by that virtue, books should be too. My next book? A slightly more modern one for some variation…Possession: A Romance by A. S. Byatt. Fingers crossed for a woman to be proud of, it’s about time.

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