Very occasionally I read a book that confounds all my expectations and The Binding by Bridget Collins was was one of these. I’m not sure if this was because I didn’t read the synopsis fully or because I became confused with other publications, but the story turned out to be very different from the one I anticipated. This wasn’t a bad thing though – far from it. The Binding is a great example of commercial literary fiction done well – fusing magical realism and romance within a historical setting. Moreover, the plot centres around books which is always a major hook for any bibliophile.
Note: There are no spoilers in this review.
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Imagine you could erase your grief.
Imagine you could forget your pain.
Imagine you could hide a secret.
Emmett Farmer is working in the fields when a letter arrives summoning him to begin an apprenticeship. He will work for a Bookbinder, a vocation that arouses fear, superstition and prejudice – but one neither he nor his parents can afford to refuse.
He will learn to hand-craft beautiful volumes, and within each he will capture something unique and extraordinary: a memory. If there’s something you want to forget, he can help. If there’s something you need to erase, he can assist. Your past will be stored safely in a book and you will never remember your secret, however terrible.
In a vault under his mentor’s workshop, row upon row of books – and memories – are meticulously stored and recorded.
Then one day Emmett makes an astonishing discovery: one of them has his name on it.
Structure and Theme
The book is divided into three parts – two are told from the main character, Emmett Farmer’s viewpoint, and the last is narrated by Lucian Darnay, one of the antagonists. Bridget Collins plays with memory, time and perspective to reveal the mystery. I enjoyed this gentle unravelling as it added to the eerie atmosphere of the story although some may find it too slow. You see the setting from many different angles and the author is especially talented at conjuring up all the senses. The gradual build also lays foundations for a twist which changes the entire direction of the novel.
The magic in The Binding is subtle in nature. Without giving away any secrets that don’t already appear in the official synopsis, this is about the power of bookbinders to bind unwanted memories in books. A fantastic concept and one which has clear crossovers with reality. But if you’re hoping for a fully developed magical system you wont find it here. The enchantment is never completely explained and it exists within a narrow setting as a backdrop to the romance. There are no epic battles or sweeping sagas. The feel is closer to the pastoral novels of Thomas Hardy and D.H.Lawrence.
Good and Evil
There’s a clever ambiguity surrounding the notions of good and evil in The Binding. Bridget Collins constantly plays with our first impressions and I was caught out several times. Nothing is ever as clear cut as it seems and one villain turns out to be truly hideous. If you are hoping for a gentle read, then be warned that this book contains extremely dark themes, particularly in the last third. But there’s incredible beauty too. The central romance is full of warmth and passion (and no I can’t say more about this!). It’s a shining light in a unforgiving, corrupt world.
I read The Binding by Bridget Collins in the middle of summer and found it a satisfying read, but I think it would be perfect for autumn or winter. Its gothic, almost claustrophobic ambience has a seductive quality that draws you in. I already have my eye on Collins’ next novel, The Betrayals, which revolves around a mysterious game and is due to publish in November 2020.
- Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
- Format: Paperback
- ISBN: 9780008272142
- Number of pages: 448
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