REVIEW | Bridget Collins delivers a spellbinding debut novel about memory and love

The Binding is at its heart a love story, and a very moving one. Like all great love stories it involves separation and misunderstanding

31 March 2019 - 00:00 By Sue de Groot

Published in the Sunday Times (28/03/2019)

The Binding ****
Bridget Collins, HarperCollins, R305

Imagine there are two types of books: those in which the stories are invented and those in which everything really happened exactly as told by the narrator.

We call these books "novels" and "biographies" now, but things are not as simple in the world of The Binding. Here, an experience that has been transferred onto pages and bound between the covers of a book no longer exists in the memory of the person who lived it.

Those with the power to perform this transplant are called binders. It is a calling which can cause severe illness if ignored.

Building on the maxim that the pen is mightier than the sword, debut novelist Bridget Collins spins a tale as enchanting as any memory trapped in the pages of a book.

Emmett Farmer is, as suggested by his name, the son of a farmer, in a country that resembles England in the 1700s, although neither time nor place is specified. Emmett, weakened by a long bout of debilitating fever, is sent away, against his will, to be the sole apprentice of a bookbinder, a woman of advanced age and intense mystery called Seredith, who lives alone in an isolated cottage on the edge of bleak swampland.

Nothing about this might seem strange on the surface, but it is the books that give this tale its intrigue. Emmett has seen only one book in his lifetime, which he opened as a child and which entranced him until his furious father tore it from him and buried it. Emmett, therefore, has a healthy fear of books.

He is also, as you have probably guessed, a natural-born binder, as he discovers when Seredith helps him recover from his lingering bout of what she calls "binder's fever" and begins to school him in the practical tasks of leather-cutting and gold-stamping.

The true art of binding is revealed only gradually to Emmett, as is the fact that his sickness has another name - "binderbound fever" - carrying with it the dread that part of his memory has been removed and sealed in a book.

Emmett's calm interlude with Seredith comes to an end when she is visited by De Havilland, a grand fellow who pours scorn not only on scruffy, naive Emmett, but on the type of binding practised by Seredith. She does not charge for her services but offers them as solace to those tormented by their memories. Their books are neither displayed nor sold. They are sealed in a vault because to burn them would be to return the memories they contain to those who sought to be free from the pain of past events.

When De Havilland takes Emmett to his foul city, the boy discovers the other, unscrupulous kind of binding - "trade binding". In one manifestation of this, binders are paid by the wealthy to erase all traces of their unwise acts from the memories of others. In the other, poor people sell their memories for a handful of coins. These books are then sold by the binders for the amusement of the wealthy. Some contain pastoral idylls but the most popular are full of lust and vice and naughtiness.

Witnessing the queues of desperate people with nothing but memories to sell, Emmett thinks: "How many people out there have been bound? How many memories are sitting in vaults, or locked in secret bookcases, or being read by other people at this very moment? How many people are walking around with half their lives missing, oblivious?"

Between anguish about his own situation and guilt about his profession, Emmett is tortured by disturbing encounters with Lucian Darnay, the alcoholic son of a nobleman. Lucian detests binders. Speaking of the "growing trade in fakes", Lucian quotes his odious father: "He says that a real, authentic book breathes an unmistakeable scent of ... well, he calls it 'truth' or 'life'. I think maybe he means 'despair'."

This binding lark is a tricky concept to wrap one's head around, never mind build a fantasy world on. Collins does an admirable job of papering over most of the cracks in internal logic by concentrating less on the intricacies of complicated magic and more on a pure, if not entirely simple, love story.

The Binding is at its heart a love story, and a very moving one. Like all great love stories it involves separation and misunderstanding. Without giving away how Emmett retrieves his stolen memories, the section in which he relives them is as vivid and sensual as anything ever written about love.

As the climax builds and threats mount against the star-crossed pair, the story enters the realm of thriller, which is perhaps to its detriment. But it remains a highly original and thoroughly spellbinding book. @deGrootS1