Title: The Binding
Author: Bridget Collins
Imagine you could erase grief.
Imagine you could hide the darkest, most horrifying secret.
Young Emmett Farmer is working in the fields when a strange letter arrives summoning him away from his family. He is to begin an apprenticeship as a Bookbinder—a vocation that arouses fear, superstition, and prejudice among their small community but one neither he nor his parents can afford to refuse.
Back in February 2019, I wrote a review of a book called The Essex Serpent. In my review, I said that, what had the potential to be an intriguing novel, was ruined by an unnecessary love story.
These two books share many similarities.
They’re both set in rural England (or a fictional version of it) in the late nineteenth-century. Both blurbs give the impression that the central plot deals with something mysterious and fascinating. In The Essex Serpent, it’s cryptozoology. In The Binding, it’s the idea of being able to erase unwanted memories by binding them in a book.
Both reveal about halfway though that they’re a love story; that this intriguing idea you though was the main focus of the narrative is a MacGuffin.
However, in The Binding, this reveal doesn’t disappoint or derail the story from its intriguing premise. Instead, it highlights the human cost and emotional effects.
The story begins with Emmett Farmer. Recently recovered from an undefined sickness, he finds himself too marked by his illness to do the heavy work required on his family farm.
He’s offered an apprenticeship with a bookbinder, a person able to bind people’s unwanted memories in books. The first part of the book then takes you into this world as Emmett begins his apprenticeship and slowly starts to unravel what caused his sickness.
The book is divided into three parts with two separate narrators. Because of how it’s structured, a mystery unfolding layer by layer, I won’t discuss the over-arching plot.
I’m not a fan of how some blurbs and reviews give away things that happen halfway into a story. If you’re the type of person who likes to know the plot before you read a book, there are plenty of reviews on Goodreads that give away more than I do in this review.
What you need to know is that, despite the intriguing premise, this is a love story.
It’s fair to say that the first part is slow and, perhaps, a bit expositor. But, not unnecessarily. It sets the scene, introduces one of the two main characters, and explains the cultural and ethical clashes surrounding the practice of bookbinding.
At first glance, being able to rid ourselves of unpleasant, painful, or disturbing memories sounds like an easy fix. No more PTSD, childhood trauma, or depression. But is it really? Just because we can no longer remember what has happened to us, does it mean the pain goes away? And what happens when you add poverty, social inequality, and amorality into that equation?
What happens when people’s memories can be sold and exploited as entertainment?
As the book picks up momentum in the second part, these are some of the questions the author explores and molds the book’s conflicts around.
The way this book is set-up—a traditional love-with-obstacles story—it could easily have turned into just another standardized romance novel.
But it doesn’t. I think Collins avoids diving into melodrama, grounding her villains and conflicts in human nature such as greed, exploitation, and prejudice. There are a few places in the novel where the villains are a little too mustache twirling “evil.” But, for the most part, she stays away from oversimplifications.
The author’s style of writing also helps to stave off the romance cliches.Her voice is rich, beautiful, and flowing, but not flowery or exaggerated. Neither is the love story.
That being said, circling back to my opening paragraphs, I think this is a book that, like The Essex Serpent, has the potential to disappoint readers.
First of all, it’s a beautiful book. Simply stunning. The cover alone will inspire people to pick this one of the shelves. As many of us know, buying a book because of its cover is always a risk.
The other, larger issue, is that this book is marketed as something it’s not.
It’s promoted as historical fantasy, and/or magical realism. It’s not. The fantasy and magic elements in this world are almost nonexistent.
What you get is a historical novel, set in an undefined nineteenth-century England, with a sprinkling of magic. A teeny, tiny pinch of fantasy. The only really “magic” part of this world is the practice of bookbinding. That practice, it’s origins or inner workings, are never closely explored, explained, or discussed.
The Binding doesn’t provide a carefully constructed fantasy world that could stand a close examination. It’s an interesting world, but it’s a backdrop to the love story.
What little magic and fantasy there are, appears in the first part of this book. As the second part begins, The Binding sheds it’s skin to reveal itself as a romance novel.
A third thing to consider is that this book is labeled as “Adult Fiction,” which some might find misleading. I wouldn’t place it in the YA genre, but it’s more “New Adult” that “Adult.”
Personally, at soon-to-be thirty-eight, I had great time. But, if you find these distinctions helpful, you might want to consider that this is a book targeted more towards people in their early twenties than forties.
With all that said, I truly enjoyed this book. And, I’m hard to please when it comes to romance.
The Binding is a beautifully written love story. The hardback edition of the book itself is gorgeous, with or without it’s dust jacket. But, it’s not fantasy, and it’s not magical realism.
It’s a historical romance novel, targeted at a twenty-something audience, with a little extra sparkle. If you approach this book with that understanding, you’ll avoid disappointment.
I though it was lovely. Even with the unexpected romance twist, I found myself genuinely enamored with the story.
The Binding is well-written. The langue has a lovely flow if you enjoy writing that’s on the heavier side. If you prefer scaled-back, tight language, this might be too rich for you.
Despite not being what I thought it would be, The Binding was an excellent read. It’s been almost nine months since I read it, but it’s one of those reads that stays with you. Not in a life-altering way. Not in the way many other books have: books that have carved out a permanent place in my life
It’s one of those books that, even if I’ll probably never feel inclined to reread it, I remember it clearly and fondly.