The Binding

Review From User :

We've been called witches since the beginning of time. Word-cunning, they used to call it-of a piece with invoking demonsWe were burned for it too. The Crusade wasn't new, we've always been scapegoats. Well, knowledge is always a kind of magic, I suppose. Emmett Farmer is a young man with issues. He used to think that he would inherit his family's farm. It was the life he was used to and the road he expected to follow to, and beyond, the horizon. But he has not been himself lately. His abilities have deteriorated. He loses himself, in time, suffering dizziness, nausea, and weakness. Some say he was cursed by a witch. When he is offered an apprenticeship with a bookbinder, it offers a way out, however frightening the career and his mentor might be.

Bridget Collins - image from United Agents, UK

Despite some raw similarities, bookbinding in Bridget Collins's world is not quite the same as it is in ours. Emmett trains with the elderly Seradith, a woman seen as being a witchy sort by some of the locals. In fact, bookbinding is seen as a dodgy sort of work. What is bound in books here are memories. Instead of sharing recollections or stories, as they do in our reality, the memories bound into beautifully crafted leather books in this world are removed from clients by binders. Unlike books in our world, which are designed to be shared, these books are meant to be hidden. Being on the NY Times Top Ten list would kinda defeat the purpose.

At least that is the intent. Cheat on your taxes Pay off your mistress to keep quiet at the height of a political campaign Sell out your nation's security in return for real estate consideration by a foreign enemy Awkward. But there is a solution, well, for part of it, anyway. Go to a binder and the memories will be nicely removed, leaving your tiny mind virginally memory and guilt free, and ready for that sit-down with whoever might be heading an investigation. If memory-cleansing bookbinding existed in our world, I imagine there would be a long line of potential clients. Of course, it might be a challenge to find binders with the innate talent to make those memories move from a client's brain to the page. One can train in how to work the leather, sew the pages, and do all the material steps entailed in constructing such a book, but only those with a special gift can smooth the passage from one medium to the other. Emmett Farmer, it turns out, has such a gift. It does not help much with tilling fields, but is crucial for this special craft. the hours passed slowly, full of small, solid details; at home, in the busyness of farm life, I'd never had the time to sit and stare, or pay attention to the way a tool looked, or how well it was made, before I used it. Here the clock in the hall dredged up seconds like stones and dropped them again into the pool of the day, letting each ripple widen before the next one fell. Emmett acclimates to Seradith's remote locale (out in the marshes), begins to learn the manual end of the binding craft, and is eager to move beyond to learn what bookbinding is really all about (he does not actually know). He is particularly curious about what goes on beyond certain forbidden doors at Seradith's emporium, but even glancing inside such doors causes him major episodes of what his boss calls Binder's Disease, costing him days of consciousness and bringing forth strange visions. These strains increase when certain clients arrive. When he finds a book with his name on it, Emmett realizes that he is less than whole.

Part Two of the novel is Emmett's bound story as reported in that book. Part Three returns us to Emmett's now, and how he deals with what he has learned. More than that about the goings on risks spoiling a key plot twist. But it does touch on forbidden love and the dangers of loving outside one's class, however that may be defined.

The Binding is an engaging page turner of an historical fantasy, particularly the first third, in which we are introduced to Collins's world, an amalgam of the medieval and circa 1890 rural England. The mystery of Emmett's affliction is enticing and his experience at Seradith's is riveting. I found Part Two, Emmett's bound story, interesting, but nowhere near as gripping. Part three is pretty much a continuation of Part Two, but with Emmett aware of his history, so is more of a cloth with the second than the first part. Not to say that the latter two are not good, just not so fabulous as the opening, in terms of the engagement of the story, at least. In terms of looking at the socio-economic implications of binding, they are wonderful.

One fascinating thing is how Collins came up with her concept. She was working as a volunteer at Samaritans, a non-profit that offers people who will listen for people who need to talk. What would it be like if I could reach out and winch that memory from you She was also taking a book-binding class at the time, and a happy combination was conceived. In setting her story in late 19th century rural England she uses some history of the era to correspond with events in the created reality. For example, the Binding Law of 1850 in Emmett's world corresponds to the 1850 legalization of gin (I'll drink to that!) in English law. The Crusades here, for example, were not about perceived Middle Eastern outrages, addressed with European outrages, but were focused on scapegoating binding for the social and economic disruptions brought about by the rise of capitalism. Binders are viewed as women accused of witchcraft have been in our world, dealers in mysterious practices, necessary for providing needed services, but not to be trusted, and maybe evil.

There are many novels that use memory loss as a core mechanism. Some elements of these are fairly common. How is memory lost Literature is rich with examples, usually of the traumatic sort, usually involving violence, typically a blow to the head. These tend to populate books in which memory loss features as a Maguffin for propelling a thriller or mystery. Next down the list is memory lost through illness, typically Alzheimers' disease. Still Alice fits in there nicely. There are stories in which memory loss is via external misadventure of a broader, science-fictiony sort, things like plagues. The Book of M is a wonderful example. Less populous is the sort in which memory is willingly surrendered, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind pops to mind. (and we elect to keep it there, for now) The Binding relies on the last of these, substituting a bit of magic for the sci-fi explanation offered in Eternal Sunshine.

What lifts The Binding above the crowd of memory-loss novels is its consideration of the societal implications of voluntary forgetting. There are complications, of course, and they are wonderfully explored. Some with power want others to forget what they have done. Think of it as an employment contract, or a user agreement for partaking in pretty much any software. You agree to this and that, and such and such, which will entail the surrender of some inalienable rights. Just click agree at the bottom of the mouse-print form. But damn, you need the job, or want to use the software. However, what if what you are surrendering to the seller, or employer, is the right to your own memories And what if the person in power has done something they would rather you not remember You might find yourself (or what is left of you) wearing out a path to the binder's shop for a bit of a memory trim (Boss just sent me over. Says you should just take a bit off the top, please, and close on the sides, ok) I will leave to your imagination (and the book of course) how such a system might be abused. So, we have an author who looks at political power in a very personal way. Workers of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but yourwait, what was that again Continuing the image, what if you are starving and selling your memories as a way to put food on the table, the way many in poverty engage in sex work to make ends meet Puts me in mind of the Beggarwoman from Sweeney Todd (Hey, don't I know you, Mister") Which of course presumes that there are binders out there with somewhat lower ethical standards than the very righteous Seradith. Shocking, I know.

To lift the novel even higher is a parallel consideration, the significance, the power of books themselves, what it means to write a book, to read a book, and to share the experiences of another through the written page. I was reminded of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and The Book Thief.

What if we look at books as a manifestation of self Not exactly a stretch. Do authors lose a part of themselves when they commit their thoughts to the page Is reading a book written by someone else a form of voyeurism Just as in our world, books can be used for benign or malign purposes, books are treated as treasured valuables by some and as a form of personal or mass-produced filth by others. Seradith, essentially, amputates memories, as a physician would take an unhealable limb, a benign act, and saves the bound memory in a beautifully crafted book, kept safe in a vault. Others may make use of such books for corrupt purposes. You, yes you, reading this, you know the power of books, how they can act like a drug, slaking, temporarily, an unquenchable thirst. Very drug-like, no How about the power of books to heal Ever read anything that made you feel better Certainly any well-written memoir can offer one a view of someone's inner life, but at least in our world, that does not require that the author forget what she has written. Books change lives, whether we read or write them. For writers, a part of themselves definitely finds its way onto the page. And a world in which all books are locked away sounds rather medieval.

Collins offers a bit of wry perspective on writing. There's a growing trade in fakes, you know. Does that concern you" He paused, but he didn't seem surprised not to get an answer. "I've never seen one-well, as far as I know-but I'm curious. Could one really tell the difference Novels, they call them. They must be much cheaper to produce. You can copy them, you see. Use the same story over and over, and as long as you're careful how you sell them, you can get away with it. it makes one wonder who would write them. People who enjoy imagining misery, I suppose. People who have no scruples about dishonesty. People who can spend days writing a long sad lie without going insaneMy father, of course, is a connoisseur. He claims that he would know instantly if he saw a novel. He says that a real, authentic book breathes an unmistakable scent ofwell. He calls it truth, or life. I think maybe he means despair. I doubt that despair is what you will experience on reading The Binder. This is a marvelous read, a thoughtful, engaging novel, featuring a large dollop of Dickensian social commentary, while following an appealing everyman through the perils of coming of age, and offering in addition insightful observations on memory-as-self and the power of books. I was sure I had something more to say, but I seem to have forgotten what that was.

Review Posted - January 4, 2019

-----UK - January 10, 2019
-----USA - April 16, 2019
----------April 21, 2020 - trade paper

==========In the summer of 2019 GR reduced the allowable review size by 25%, from 20,000 to 15,000 characters. In order to accommodate the text beyond that I have moved it to the comments section below in what is currently comment #5.

Imagine you could erase grief.
Imagine you could remove pain.
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.

For as long as he can recall, Emmett has been drawn to books, even though they are strictly forbidden. Bookbinding is a sacred calling, Seredith informs her new apprentice, and he is a binder born. Under the old woman’s watchful eye, Emmett learns to hand-craft the elegant leather-bound volumes. Within each one they will capture something unique and extraordinary: a memory. If there’s something you want to forget, a binder can help. If there’s something you need to erase, they can assist. Within the pages of the books they create, secrets are concealed and the past is locked away. In a vault under his mentor’s workshop, rows upon rows of books are meticulously stored.

But while Seredith is an artisan, there are others of their kind, avaricious and amoral tradesman who use their talents for dark ends – and just as Emmett begins to settle into his new circumstances, he makes an astonishing discovery: one of the books has his name on it. Soon, everything he thought he understood about his life will be dramatically rewritten.The Binding by Bridget Collins

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