I’m sure everyone has them but there are books I come back to like old friends. They may not be re-read every year but opening the first page feels like a warm blanket, an exhaled breath when your toes touch the sand. Every time I read them, there is something new, some detail that I’ve not seen before that feels perfect for where I am at that very second.
AS Byatt’s ‘Possession’ is one of those books and I’ve been reading it again since the beginning of the new year. For those of you who don’t know it, Roland is an early career researcher whose work revolves around the work of the 19th century poet Randolph Henry Ash. He finds the draft of a letter from Ash to an unnamed woman stuffed into a forgotten book in a library. The woman is another poet Christabel La Motte, and this discovery takes him to meet Maud, a leading expert in her work. Together, they find out about the relationship between Randolph and Christabel and the secrets they kept.
Cue anticipatory dun-dun-dun noises….
Byatt calls it a romance but it’s not one in a truly traditional sense – and even writing that feels like a gross over-simplification of it. Relationships begin and end in it but it’s so much more than that, deeper than that. At its core, a love of words, and beautiful words at that, exists. And, god knows, I have always followed beautiful words.
The way I’m reading it at the moment is the relationship you have with your work – how what you research can become this significant part of you. Not just who you in terms of being a ‘researcher’, but how it shapes the ways in which you see the world. And how meeting other people who see the world slightly differently (or a lot differently) can entirely alter your whole existence – all of a sudden a whole world is opened to you that you had no idea existed before.
These two people, and others around them, who are experts in their field don’t know everything, and won’t know everything. There will always be secrets, things unheard, and things unsaid and that’s not a negative in any way but something beautifully humbling. We all hold some things close to our hearts, the things that feel too precious to say aloud. And we all share some things with the world. It feels very human to exist within those dichotomies.
This sense of unknowing is enhanced by the fact that ‘Possession’ was set in 1986, so there is no internet and no smartphones. Information takes time to reach another person when it is shared, especially if phone calls are missed. There is a sense of isolation almost in the narrative that wouldn’t exist now, a sense that time was less a focus because there was less assumption in immediacy. Things could take time because they usually did as a matter of fact. People could be uncontactable.
Right now, the idea of being uncontactable is both hugely romantic and deeply terrifying.
There’s a part in the book where Roland’s dream of a white bed – of clean white sheets – is described. I’ve always loved it because it feels so much like a search for a fresh start, a blank page. Throughout the book, there’s a sense that he is searching for this white, crisp space. Yet, Maud’s vision of white sheets is initially something less calming. Her journey becomes one around unbinding – she has kept parts of herself hidden for too long in order to do her work. Maud’s journey with Roland, as they travel alongside Randolph and Christabel, unleashes what is hidden in myriad ways over time and space. She becomes more of herself because she feels free to do so.
There’s not quite a happily-ever-after – but who really trusts those anyway? Yet, Roland and Maud demonstrate what power there is – what can be uncovered and discovered – when driven by intellectual curiosity.
It’s a beautiful, inspiring thing.
What is your go-to, desert-island, end-of-the-world book?