The Binding is a novel which immediately seduces. Like the hardback books of the nineteenth century, it has deckle edging, quality paper and an embossed spine – its bronze, navy blue and glossy gold cover will entice you with its strikingly classic yet magical design.
The first adult novel from acclaimed London-based writer and playwright Bridget Collins, The Binding is a novel about bookbinding – a booklovers’ dream.
After volunteering with the Samaritans and listening to people’s stories, Collins began to wonder what would happen if she could simply take the ‘traumatic or painful’ memories away from a person. The idea collided with the practical bookbinding courses she was on, and so The Binding was born.
Set in rural England in the late nineteenth century, books in the world of The Binding are not revered or commonplace objects. Instead, books are reviled by most, despised by many, hoarded and protected only by a few. By decent people, they are not sold or put on display: instead they are kept in locked vaults. Only those with corrupt motives persist in the illegal trading of books or the collection of vast libraries. When the main character, Emmett Farmer, picks up a book for the first time, his father panics, rips the book away from him, and shouts ‘Don’t ever let me see you with a book again!’
Why are books so dangerous in the world of The Binding? Emmett soon finds out – instead of stories, bookbinders bind memories. Memories of living people, who, once they have had a memory bound, can no longer remember anything to do with it. Much like witches, bookbinders are seen as suspicious, mysterious people – even evil. When someone wants to forget something – be it terrible or beautiful – they can go to a bookbinder and have the memory removed. As long as the book is not destroyed, the memory remains safe. If the book is destroyed, the memory returns to its owner – often with dire consequences.
Emmett Farmer knows his future: he will continue to work his father’s farm and one day take over the land. But when a mysterious letter arrives summoning him to a bookbinding apprenticeship, his life rapidly dissolves into a confusion of strange events, odd happenings and pounding headaches. Emmett learns from his elderly mentor Seredith that bookbinding is not what it first appears. In each beautifully hand-crafted book is a memory, and he is to learn how to bind them.
When the mysterious character Lucian Darney appears and throws everything into disarray, Emmett makes an astonishing and terrifying discovery: one of the books in Seredith’s workshop has his name on it.
The Binding is a lush read. Told in three parts: the first and second by Emmett and the third by Lucian, this is a sweeping tale that will hold you entirely in its grip. It is effortlessly readable, with beautiful descriptions (‘Quietness spread out around me like a ripple in a pond, deadening the hiss of the wind and the scratch of the flames’) and vivid characterisation.
Beware if you are going into The Binding looking for a fantasy adventure, however. Primarily a novel that is (self-admitted by Collins) ‘shamelessly romantic’, some readers might be unhappy when the novel prioritises the romance above all else. From the second part onwards, the novel keeps the fantasy elements but its focus shifts from fantasy adventure to fully-fledged romance. It is a tale about people who find love with each other despite the odds.
The Binding has very dark content at parts, particularly in part three, and requires some content warnings including rape, abuse and murder.
One of the most interesting part of The Binding, for me, was the moral discussion over whether bookbinding (i.e. memory-binding) is a good or bad thing. Although a person must voluntarily give up their memories, there are societal implications – people with more power want others to forget what they have done, and, inevitably, it is the poor who are the most hurt and targeted. If a poor person needs money or food, they can choose to ‘sell’ a memory to a bookbinder, leaving them incomplete. It is almost impossible to regain their memories – and they can be irrevocably hurt in the process.
Considered evil by most, Emmett’s tutor Seredith considers bookbinding as a life-saving act, a ‘sacred’ art that ‘eases the pain’ of her clients. She essentially amputates the painful memory and leaves the person able to start life anew. Others have more corrupt intent because they make books for ‘trade’. Seredith is horrified by this idea: ‘You become each person you bind, Emmett … Just for a little while, you take them on. How can you do that if you want to sell them at a profit?’
With bookbinding, romance, fantasy, wit and humour, Collins has created a magical tale that booklovers will adore. The lyrical language and engaging characters ensure The Binding is an immersive read. Be careful though – perhaps your lost memories are hiding in a book somewhere, too …
Reviewed by Rosalie Elliffe
by Bridget Collins
Published by HarperCollins