Saturday, August 15, 2009

A S Byatt - Possession and Audrey Niffnegger - The Time Traveller's Wife

It has been my fortune to read two wonderful novels in the recent times. Novels that have excited and challenged me. Both the novels play with Time. One is a scholarly research into the past of a fictional poet couple, another about a fictional creature who is at the mercy of Time. Past and present are required to be blended seamlessly in both these novels.

Possession by AS Byatt was gifted to me by a blogger friend who I had the privilege of meeting. One chapter into it and I was hooked. It was about a research scholar Roland Mitchell who comes upon a letter hitherto undiscovered from a Victorian Poet (fictional) Randolph Henry Ash to some unknown woman. I have done a year of MA English Literature and am quite familiar with the tracts of texts that delve into the personal life of writers, trying to find clues to their genius. It seems voyeuristic and thrilling at the same time. I have read scholars who tried to decode who the 'dark lady' was that Shakespeare mentions in his sonnets. I can imagine how such a letter would throw scholars like these into a tizzy. So it is. Roland keeps the letter a secret while he tries to unravel the mystery behind it. RH Ash had an unblemished personal life and this hint of extra marital romance is sure to create waves in the literary world. As Roland has a hunch that the lady in question is Christabel LaMotte, he has to take Dr Maud Bailey into confidence as she is the one who knows all there is to know about the Victorian poetess who was thought to be a lesbian.

Together Maud and Roland try to piece the story of the Victorian lovers together, like stalkers from another age they try to follow the steps of the past lovers. They cannot keep their stealth for long as established scholars can sniff out that this couple is up to something. More people get sucked into the story till it becomes a delightful, almost comic, free for all.

The book operates on many levels, it is a work of astounding scholarship, as AS Byatt creates two poets and also a body of their work. It is also a gentle sweet stabbing satire on scholars who get too voyeuristic and too meddling and too digging at times in trying to discover all about their favorite authors. It is also a story of a love of great depth unearthed gradually and lovingly recreated. There is a romantic tension between the two scholars Maud and Roland as well, and they find themselves shedding their inhibitions and bonding as they journey along the path of the lovers past. It is a mystery too, as secrets spill out of Victorian closets. It even has a twist in the end.

A magnificent book to be savored again and again.

The Time Traveller's Wife by Audrey Niffnegger was recommended to me by
Couchpapaya many times over. When I saw the trailer of the movie that was based on the book, I knew it was time to read it. I received the book from flipkart on thursday the 12th of August, 2009 I read one chapter and was immediately hooked. I devoured the book by late last night, 14th August, 2009. The title of this blog is a quote from the book.

A BIG RECKLESS NOVEL.. UTTERLY CONVINCING says a blurb in the back by Daily Telegraph.

So True.

How can I describe this book? It is so bold and original and so sure footed. Henry DeTamble is a time traveller. His body gets pulled into different time zones by its own accord, and the experience is not pleasent. He arrives naked in a spot that is not always of his choosing, he has to forage for money and clothes and survive till the time he is pulled back. He has to maintain a strict regimen about his time travels and be very moral. He will not use (except for a few notable exceptions) his time travel for profit, nor does he reveal the future too often to the 'straight' travellers. His concern is how to lead a normal life despite his digressions. Clare is sucked into his world when she is six years old and Henry is 36, he knows things about her that she doesnt and he knows he has to be very patient with her. It is like a love story that is constantly travelling back and forth into time. He knows their love will endure and she has to believe it, have faith in him.

The book is carefully dated and timed to make the reader realise at what point in time they are. It is easy to feel disoriented in a book like this, but Niffnegger is sure footed and you travel with her, eyes open, taking in each marvel. Henry has to keep fit, running miles everyday to be able to survive when he arrives in a different time zone, buck naked and vulnerable. He has to learn how to pick locks and steal, passing time sometimes in jail. Similarly Clare has to keep faith, learn to fend for herself when she finds Henry missing. She has to get on with her life and keep her body and soul together.

As I read this book, I was reminded of Possession that I read earlier, and realising that these two books really challenged me. My cup of happiness was filled to the brim when I saw a quote from AS Byatt in the middle of the Niffnegger book. It proabably wont make any sense out of context, but here is a part of the quote anyway.

This is always where I have been coming to. Since my time began. And when I go away from here, this will be the mid-point, to which everything else ran, before, and from which everything will run. But now, my love, we are here, we are now, and those times are running elsewhere.

Incidently, both the books have been made into movies. Possession stars Gwyneth Paltrow and Aaron Eckhart as the scholars and Jeremy Northram and Jennifer Ehle as the Victorian poets. The Time Traveller's Wife will star Eric Bana and Rachel McAdams. I have not seen either of these. TTW is yet to release and Possession can perhaps be found on DVD if I look for it. If I do watch the movies, I will surely write about them as well. But I do wonder how stories with such 'scapes can be made into films.


WhatsInAName said...

awesome reviews as always! And its a pleasure to have the 2-in-1 treat.
I have heard so much about TTWife from many sources including papaya. I am ordering it right away.
As for Possession, story sounds at once mystical and romantic. Why only poets, i think we humans are suckers for such hidden stories behind all celebrities.
Will order that too.

WhatsInAName said...

btw loved the title of this post and how it relates to the books you reviewed

avdi said...

Thanks WIAN,

The books are really worth a read.

You are right, we love to hear all about the lives of the rich and famous.

I adore all those celebrity rankings on AXN and comparision between them all that stuff.

couchpapaya said...

avdi - wonderful reviews!! i'd forgotten about the possession quotes in TTTW. at the time i'd resolved to read the bok but subsequently i heard that i contained a large body of poetry and my enthusiasm waned. i think i'll get it anyway and try it out .... i did see the movie had been released and ehle has been a fav since p&p so i'm going to watch it sometime but have to read the book first!!

as for tttw - it's such an amazing debut isnt it. i find very few books nowadays have a huge emotional impact for me, but this one worked at all levels. i generally empathise with characters but the ones here are so unlikeable that i often have wondered why it had the impact on me that it did. i can only come away with that niffenegger's wiriting is exquisitely thoughtful and the situation that henry and clare find themselves in is described so beautifully that i was caught up.

and u've read the book at the perfect time - of cos movie is coming out but niffenegger's second novel will be released sometime soon (oct i think)! i cant wait :)

WIAN - enjoy :)

Vee said...

I would love to read Possession, now that you have given it your angel.

I am not reading anything after finishing 'Story of Noor Inayat Khan', I am back in night shift and is missing out on most of the stuff.

Anonymous said...


If that's the one where the heroine has a not so lovely face but a really amazing personality, I read it as a RD condensed book. Good ending too!

Looking forward to the Time travel book/film too!

avdi said...

CP, I re-read your reviews here and there after writing mine. I remember how kicked I was about reading the book right away.

Yes the large tracts of poetry and prose by the Victorian Poets is a hit of a time stopper, but makes you admire AS Byatt all the more.

AT the first read I thought there really was some poet called Henry Ash and went looking for him over the net .. hehe.. And realised he was CREATED .. I was totally bowled over by that. How ambitious ! But the good thing is that the poetry and prose can be skimmed over without losing any of the story, not that it is bad. It really is good. And I am not so quick to endorse poetry.

avdi said...

Vee - You lazy fellow ! Stop addling your mind with daru n movies.. Do something intellectual for a change. hehe..

Your pick is abs right. Possession is really amazing. Thanks to Poonam for gifting it to me.

avdi said...

Ashwin, yes Possession has a great ending. It is a consummate book.

You will love TTW. I am waiting for the movie too, more because I love Eric Bana who stars in it. I am hoping they wont slash the story.

Capt. Anup Murthy said...

Wow, great reviews indeed. TTW is being released this weekend in Singapore, saw ads here today. I'd love to read your review about the movie and compare with the book!

avdi said...


Thanks. I was a pleasure to write about these books.

Ahh.. I am not sure the movie will release in Chandigarh. The standard english movies here are the Harry Potter ones, Terminator, James Bonds and such action stuff. :( It is a long standing grouse of mine.

I saw Persepolis a while back, and there were only 3 people in the hall. I was afraid they would cancel the show. Such a fabulous movie, and such a response !

Anyhow, I am not sure the movie will measure up. It is such a complex story. If you watch it please leave me your reaction at or here.

Capt. Anup Murthy said...

Avdi, sure, I will watch the movie and write back to you. The movie's web site has a trailer, maybe you have seen that? Here is the link anyway:

avdi said...

Thanks Anup,

My fellow blogger Couchpapaya made a post out of it, actually the trailer goaded me to get the book finally.

I will look foward to your feedback

Yword said...

havent readeither book - heardto the timetravellers wife of course but somehow dint think it would workfor me. will browse it next time - greatwrite upson the books.

avdi said...

Thanks yword.. I hope you like it when you do pick up.

Capt. Anup Murthy said...

Finally, I just got back from the movie TTW. I found it very romantic, well made, so that we don't have to mess around with dates and times. Eric Bana is the ideal choice to play Henry and Rachel McAdams is surely Clare. The chemistry between the two is very good on screen. To condense a complex subject like this from a book to movie is always difficult and this time it looked more like an easy version of the book has been portrayed (altho I have not read the book) where it appears more like a romance themed movie than about time travel. There is little use of any sci fi jargon as to his genetic condition and the possible remedies etc so I'd put this movie in Romance category more than sci fi.

I don't know how censor board is like, in India, as I have not been to the movies there in a very long time. If they are still like I remember them (the Censors I mean), there may be a few cuts here and there and may hamper continuity. The cuts may come from all the Buck naked shots (Eric's butt is visible a few times clearly in the movie as he flits between time) and also a clear bare butt shot of Rachel on one occasion! Guys enjoyed that one for sure..hehehe...So in all I would say the movie is good enjoyment, not at all complicated and does not really challenge the mind. So, for a nice Sunday afternoon movie, I'd give it 3 stars. Good but not brilliant. There were young girls in the back with tears in their eyes so I'd imagine this would also go down as a successful date movie! I am not sure the book reflects that.

avdi said...

Anup thanks !

This comment is a value add to my post :)

Capt. Anup Murthy said...

You are welcome. I am glad that I was able to watch the movie and write to you.

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