The Borough Press
Rating: 3.5 stars
I was lured into Bridget Collins’ The Binding because of my own long-standing interest in book history and medieval bindings, so I have to admit a degree of prejudice in my expectations when I took this book home and discovered that it was not about magical medieval bindings, but set in a zeitgeisty cod-Victorian fantasy world. Nonetheless, I dived in.
The Binding tells the story of a young man named Emmett Farmer who is… a farmer (a joke that does not go unemployed in the book itself) but who, after a long and unexplained illness, receives a mysterious summons to be apprentice to a bookbinder. In this world, a bookbinder is one who can exorcise memories from a subject, and bind them into a book. It’s a sort of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind Victoriana remix. Bookbinders are outcasts, and their magic is suspect, but Emmett has been chosen for some reason and must follow the calling. Then, of course, he finds a book which bears his own name…
The Binding rests on a fantastic idea, and it’s explored in great detail in the book, which is a huge part of its appeal. First, we see ‘binding’ as a mode of dispatching traumatic memories, a form of medicine, and of healing. But as Emmett travels to the town from his rural bindery, we meet those addled by selling too many of their memories, and those coerced into giving their memories up. As one might expect, giving up a memory isn’t as simple a healing process or as much of a freeing panacea as it initially seems.
There’s lots to recommend The Binding: in many places the writing is truly beautiful, and the whole concept behind the book is captivating. At its heart, also, is a simple, human story. But there were lots of things about it that left me wanting more. Many of the characters came in broad strokes, from an aloof and unscrupulous binder to a wicked serial-rapist aristocrat to an innocent little chambermaid. Nor did Emmett himself – or the other narrator who takes over for the final portion – have a particularly strong or distinctive voice. There’s a romance at the centre of the story, too, and although we are told it is passionate, it’s strangely lacklustre and heatless on the page. The book cover compares it to Sarah Waters, but I didn’t find the same ratcheting sexual tension in the pages of The Binding and it made the romance feel emblematic rather than real and involving.
Nonetheless, I’d heartily recommend The Binding on the strength of the great idea that underpins it and the enjoyable and – for want of a better word – quaffable ease of the prose. You’ll never look at a book the same way again.
Reviewed by Louise