Traumatic memories are bound between covers and then erased in an escapist fantasy debut that becomes a profound parable.
Bridget Collins’s fantasy novel, her first for adults, begins sombrely, with its teenage hero Emmett being sent away from his family farm to become an apprentice to a binder of books. He’s weak after a long illness of a mysterious nature and, from his family’s strained behaviour, we intuit that he’s in some kind of disgrace he doesn’t fully understand. When he arrives at the isolated house of Seredith, the elderly woman to whom he’s apprenticed, it’s both an exile and a haven. He spends his days learning to make endpapers, tool leather, gilding – the delicate physical labour of making beautiful books. But he soon realises that the true work of binding is magical, manifested in the way that lives are turned into stories.
Distressed people arrive at Seredith’s, asking to have their traumatic experiences put down on paper; once that is done, the memories are erased. They leave dulled but soothed, and in her cellar, Seredith keeps their secrets safe in gorgeous books with the subject’s name on the spine. Of course, somewhere among them is a book with Emmett’s name on it, which contains the secret of his disgrace. When Seredith dies, the books fall into unscrupulous hands, and Emmett is set on a path to recover his lost past.
In many ways, The Binding is an unpretentious work of escapist fiction. The morality of the book is simple; the good are essentially noble and their enemies unambiguously wicked. The vaguely antiquated setting could as easily be Westeros or Hardy’s Wessex. At the heart of the novel is a love story that develops along a familiar trajectory, from immediate dislike to inexplicable flutters of the heart to full infatuation with its feeling of being “breathless and dizzy, as if my blood was too thin”. When the protagonists are happy, it’s spring outdoors. When things go wrong, a wet snow falls.
But while some elements are overfamiliar, every detail is bracingly specific and real: a room in a snowbound country house, “so quiet … it was like walking into a picture”; a man with whiskers but no moustache so that “his mouth sat in the middle of his face like an overripe fruit”; a rose petal “so soft I can’t feel where it begins”. Collins also masterfully conveys the interior life of her characters, particularly the altered states of love, and the book becomes truly spellbinding as Emmett is drawn vertiginously toward sexual love and its dazzling aftermath. “The moon itself beyond the latticed glass; a pearl caught in a net. I didn’t even know who I was any more. I was new, I was a stranger … When I woke in the morning I lay there, incredulous, nearly blinded by it, holding on to the edge of the bed as if I was shipwrecked.”
In the second half, we’re led through a series of plot twists that transform the central metaphor into something more profound. It turns out that binding is not just about selective amnesia, it’s about how people can be compelled to forget the crimes of the powerful, and how sin is defined by enforced silence. It is society that makes it unsafe for us to fully know ourselves. Thus The Bindingbecomes a parable of “Don’t ask, don’t tell” and the #MeToo movement, one that makes it clear that even our memories can be colonised. The victims of this arrangement, such as Emmett, are left in a permanent state of dissociation, with the feeling of being responsible for an unnamed crime for which they will never be forgiven.
Many readers of The Binding will simply sink gratefully into the pleasures of its pages, because, like all great fables, it also functions as transporting romance. I once heard an author of young adult fiction being asked what her novel was about, and instead of explaining its adventure plot or sophisticated science- fiction premise, she said: “Kissing”. This was clearly self-deprecation, but it was also an aperçu about the pleasure that draws readers to a huge array of books, from The Hunger Games to Anna Karenina. The Binding is a kissing novel par excellence, and on this level, it is like a wonderful meal made from a few simple ingredients: the feeling in your chest when you hold someone in your arms for the first time; the sight of a host of bluebells. In recent years, the state of the world has threatened to make us forget the simple pleasures of kisses and bluebells and thick novels that tell stories of heartbreak. Here is a book to help us remember.