Picks and Pans Review: Possession

updated 12/24/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/24/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

by A.S. Byatt

Byatt, elder sister of novelist Margaret Drabble, won the Booker Prize, Britain's most prestigious literary award, for this wonderful two-tiered mystery of letters, the most craftily constructed conjunction of Victorian and modern styles since The French Lieutenant's Woman.

In 1986 Roland Mitchell, an academic subaltern living in genteel poverty, finds in a book in the London Library two drafts of a letter written by Randolph Henry Ash, a Robert Browning-like 19th-century poet. The letters hint that the married Ash had a hitherto unsuspected relationship with a minor poetess, Christabel LaMotte. Ash's life has been so assiduously picked over that this discovery would be a literary sensation. Roland teams with Maud Bailey, a feminist professor and LaMotte expert; together they uncover a torrid and tangled affair.

The real romance, however, is between Byatt and language. Her elaborate creations of poetry, correspondence and journals in Victorian style are vivid. In the contemporary arena, she spins out an amusing tale of scholarly backbiting and competition. And in a few deft strokes, she limns the superfluity of literature in a shallow TV age.

Whether you savor Byatt's Victoriana or flip impatiently through these passages, you will be transfixed by the slowly unfolding story of these long-dead lovers, a mystery that ends, fittingly enough, in a spectral lightning storm in an old village graveyard. (Random House, $22.95)

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