Sometimes a single, simple change can birth a brilliant and exquisite story. In The Binding (review copy from Harper Collins) Bridget Collins turns the magic of writing a story into literal magic. Books are the real memories of real people, and once written down, the subject has given up those memories forever unless and until the book is destroyed. They are left with no recollection of the events that they have given up to be bound. In Collins’s hands, this becomes a beautiful story of love and loss, cut through by a brilliant exploration of the dynamics of power.
After recovering from a long illness, Emmett Farmer discovers that he is a Bookbinder, one of the rare people with the talent to bind people’s memories into book form. Apprenticed to Seredith, he begins to learn the craft of making books while continuing his recovery. One day, Seredith is visited by a rich young man called Lucian, who is extremely distressed and troubled and wants his memories bound. Emmett has never met him before, but Lucian is intensely focused on Emmett. Seredith’s health is failing, and she dies before Emmett’s training is complete. He is taken on by another bookbinder who lacks Seredith’s prize for craft skills and her view that binding is a sacred calling that should be offered to all those that need it. Give up too many memories, or do it too frequently, and the person who is bound can be left as little more than a hollow zombie.
This is one of the real strengths of the book for me. Its exploration of power and how the wealthy exploit and commodify the experiences of the vulnerable and less fortunate is extremely contemporary, particularly in the #MeToo world. In Seredith’s hands, binding is a way of helping others to move on from tragedy, and is not something to be done lightly or without thought. But Collins shows how the powerful use the same mechanisms to silence others – including sexually abused servants. Others sell their life experiences for the titillation of others as a way of briefly escaping poverty. Books containing people’s experiences are bought and sold for entertainment, with a dark trade in the most horrific experiences. The books of people who are bound are used as tools for blackmail and extortion.
But the heart of The Binding is a beautiful queer love story. It unfolds throughout the second part of the book. Collins writes it with grace and a wonderful emotional intensity. It is joyful, evoking the tender fragility of a burgeoning love affair, but bitter sweet for its forbidden nature. It’s impossible not to be swept up in Collins’s lyrical prose as the romance unfolds.
This is a book to immerse yourself in, but prepare to be hit in the feels. Hard.
Goodreads rating: 5*