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Souls Lost Through Books In The Binding By Bridget Collins [Review]

Words Book Review with image of front cover of The Binding by Bridget Collins

The Binding is based on a markedly original idea about memories and books.

Bridget Collins imagines a world in which you engage the services of a book binder and whatever was causing you distress or pain can be erased from your memory. Your most traumatic memories are bound between the covers of a book and wiped clean away. 

It sounds like the perfect cure but Bridget Collins shows us there are two problems with binding.

The first is that the people whose memories are erased are not made whole again by their binding. It’s so complete a cleansing process that it leaves the participants as mere shells of their former selves. It takes away not just their memories but the essence of their character. They are no longer themselves.  

For the young apprentice binder Emmett Farmer the moment of binding wrenches out the deepest part of a person, leaving a hole in its place.

Which was worse? To feel nothing, or to grieve for something you no longer remembered? Surely when you forgot, you’d forget to be sad, or what was the point? And yet that numbness would take part of your self away, it would be like pins and needles in your soul…

What he comes to learn troubles him even more deeply. Memories, he discovers, can be stolen, treated as a commodity just like sugar or soap and sold for amusement and profit by manipulative, powerful figures.

Bridget Collins reveals a world of exploitation in which members of the aristocracy use bindings to hide their abuse of female servants.

… when they leave they’re sucked dry, bound for the last time so they don’t remember anything, they’ll deny he ever touched them, they’ll tell everyone he’s a lovely man, delightful, and if every anyone tries to do something to stop him … He laughs, because he’s safe.

Beauty And Evil Of Books

Within the world of The Binding, books are things of beauty, covered in black velvet inlaid with pearls or bound in silk and shimmering like silver. But what they contain is powerful and evil, the people reading them dangerous.

This is a book about books both as objects of desire and as objects of abomination because they are written by people “who enjoy imagining misery … people who have no scruples about dishonesty.” .

It was this idea that kept me reading The Binding. It more than compensated for the rather uninspired romance between Emmett and a gentleman’s son that formed the bulk of the novel’s second and third sections.

The book starts strongly with Emmett, the teenage son of a farmer, apprenticed to Seredith, an old binder who lives on the edge of a marsh. Just as he is settling into his new life and learning his trade, he makes a discovery – one of the books in her bindery vault bears his name.

It’s just one of the many things in his life he doesn’t understand: why did his family feel he had brought disgrace to their home? Why was he so ill before he moved to the bindery? And why does he feel hatred towards Lucian Darnay, a boy his own age who arrives at Seredith’s home one day.

The answers are provided in the second section which winds back to a time when Emmett and his sister develop a strong friendship with Lucian Darnay. After the atmospheric and intriguing first section, part two was a big disappointment.

It was essentially a retelling of a well-known theme of initial aversion that becomes affection and eventually turns into love. I wasn’t surprised to discover later that Bridget Collins had previously focused on young adult fiction and The Binding is her first foray into adult fiction. I would happily have traded this romance in for more time in the company of Seredith, serene amid the russet and ochre- tiled workshop smelling of saffron and glue.

Fortunately the book perks back up with the final section which takes the story of Emmett and Lucian’s relationship into the future and in which we learn the truth about bindings.

This is a strong debut novel, written with pace and memorable imagery. With a few tweaks (to more fully realise Emmett’s sister for example) it would have been a knock out.

The Binding by Bridget Collins: EndNotes

Bridget Collins has written seven books for young adults and has had two plays produced, one at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. 

She was inspired to write her first adult novel, The Binding because of her work as a volunteer with The Samaritans. Faced with stories of pain and heartache she began to wonder what would happen if she could take the memory of the painful experiences away from them, leaving them to begin again. 

In parallel she took a course in bookbinding. In an interview published on the Foyles blog, she said she was immediately seduced by the process:

… by the processes, the materials – the coloured papers, gold, leather, beeswax, silk – and the tools, which are made of wood and bone and metal. It was all wonderfully tactile, with a sort of subtle glamour that made me imagine another, older, world..

The Binding was published in Jan 2019 by Borough Press, an imprint of HarperCollins,

With thanks to the Borough Press and NetGalley for a review copy. 

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