And I guess this is the problem I have with A.S. Byatt - an author who critics seem to adore. I find her books enjoyable enough, but they don't blow me away. I'm not left post-book feeling that I've been transported somewhere else and have to come gently back to earth again. She's clever, sometimes she's witty, but her novels seem to lack heart, for me they are too cool, too clever, too "conscious" of themselves. That was certainly my impression post-The children's room, and to a lesser extent, remains the same post-Possession.
I'm not alone in feeling this incidentally. She seems to have as many neutral readers as fans, rather to my surprise. See The Guardian's take on this.
The first thing to say is that I enjoyed Possession, an entertaining tale of academic rivalry and romance. The novel drifts between the nineteenth-century and the romance between a Victorian poet and an emancipated woman, who may, or may not, be bisexual, and a twentieth-century academic romance. When some letters unexpectedly turn up between the previously-believed-to-be-happily-married-poet and the liberated female poet, 2 modern day academics investigate the relationship, believing themselves to be on the brink of uncovering a whole new aspect of Victorian literary life.
The modern day romance is beautifully written - understated, sweet and funny. The Victorian romance is pretty good too, even if it is heavily pastiched from Trollope and other writers of the period. Where I struggled was with the inordinate amount of "quotations" from the poet - Randolph Henry Ash, and his lover, Christabel LaMotte. There were what seemed to be reams of pseudo-Victorian poetry, generally not particularly well written. If Ash was supposed to be perhaps not in the first line of Victorian poetry but at least in the second, these poems did him a grave disservice. Not much better were the stories and poetry of LaMotte. The fairy stories of LaMotte are less Brothers Grimm than very bad Angela Carter-pastiches (and I'm a great Angela Carter fan).
Where the novel did score highly was in the comic elements - some of the lesser characters such as Sir George and Lady Bailey were brought beautifully to life. But the novel itself remains oddly unsatisfying with a corny (if rather sweet) ending; and a denouement that is strikingly Gothic. Although a bit of Gothic should sit well within the overall tone of the book, it remains rather out of place, and makes an extraordinarily fantastic scene, which although entertaining lacks verisimilitude.
It was an enjoyable read, was fun to pass a few days reading, but I wouldn't read it again, and remain unconvinced by the critics' praise of Byatt. Overall a bit of a disappointment, with the odd glowing moment.