Tuesday, April 15, 2008
What an original book! A.S. Byatt was awarded the Booker Prize of Fiction in 1990 for her ambitious love story between two fictional poets from the 19th century, R.H. Ash and Cristabel LaMotte, and two modern day literary experts on their works and life, Maud Bailey and Roland Mitchell, who uncover a series of unknown love letters between the poets and piece together clues that have been well hidden for over a century. Journal entries, poems, fables, letters, dialogue and narrative are all used by the author to progress the plot and expose the century old secret love affair. The fierce competition over discovery and possession of the recently discovered documents within the world of academia explains the urgent drive and need to uncover their past.
The result is not always easy to read. The poetry, for me, was especially difficult. Reading poetry, complicated poetry...not Dr. Seuss or Shel Silverstein, is like reading a foreign language that I only had one semester of in middle school. I can read it, pronounce it but simply don't have the patience, background knowledge or vocabulary to comprehend it. Victorian era poetry is like multiplying that difficulty ten fold. And, many times, it wasn't a few lines or stanzas to muddle my way through, but pages and pages of subtle irony and word play about relationships or observations embedded in a poem about a garden or insect.
That's the hard stuff. But the conversations about life, creation, religion, independence, gender, and language within a charged current of attraction and need had me on edge and completely absorbed in the story. The characters are impossibly real. Byatt captures a unique personality through past writing of each of her historical characters. Ash's writings are consistently and clearly his. Christabel has a completely different style in communication and poetry. Even Ash's wife, Ellen's writings (yes, he is married. It's a romance but not a happy, feel good one) are purely hers. There is no contamination from other characters or limits created from the author herself. I really thought the italicized print were reprinted documents. Not being a poet or scholar of Victorian English literature, I had no idea that Ash or LaMotte were actually fictional. I knew the story was fictional, but I assumed the author took license with two actual historical figures. They are so tangible, so smart and their voices and thoughts so believable and detailed that it wasn't until I finished the book and googled Ash and LaMotte that I discovered their lives were limited to this book. The letters, the poems, the journals...each had their own tone and style. What a feat to accomplish in one book. No wonder it won such a prestigious award!
Incredible fiction. I'll remember this book for a long time.