Possession: A Romance by A.S. Byatt is the best book I’ve ever read.
Why? you may legitimately ask. Where to start? I’ll start with it is a great story. It has interesting characters, hidden mysteries from the past, a grave-robbing episode, and romance. What more could you want? Oh, you might want some great writing. Yes, it has that too. The writing is so good that you cannot possibly read this book only once and see all its nuances. This book compels what C.S. Lewis would call good reading (see his Experiment in Criticism).
I could go on and on about this great book, and I’ll probably go on in another post or two. To start, let me tell you what the sub-title means. A.S. Byatt uses a quote from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s preface to The House of Seven Gables as an epigraph to Possession. The Hawthorne quote contrasts a romance with a novel, claiming that a novel aims at narrating “the probable and ordinary course” of human experience, while a romance “presents truth under circumstances, to a great extent, of the writer’s own choosing or creation.” The Hawthorne quote ends, appropriately, with a sentence that describes Possession. “The point of view in which this tale comes under the Romantic definition lies in the attempt to connect a bygone time with the very present that is flitting away from us.”
Possession connects the past with the present. Its two main characters are academic researchers who study writers of the nineteenth century. I first read Possession while writing my doctoral dissertation on a woman who wrote between 1789 and 1810. The connection of the past and present was part of what I was trying to do. This was clearly a book that related to my life. But I’m not convinced I’d like the book less if I’d never studied Sarah Trimmer. I’d like it differently.