Bridget Collins’ The Binding is set in a magical quasi-Victorian world in which books are dangerous. I was intrigued by that unusual premise, but the novel ultimately fails to deliver and instead presents the reader with a story that’s at times so dark as to be difficult to get through, and in which the hero is shoved aside so the story can focus on his love interest.
Emmett Farmer is an ordinary yet sickly young man. Still recovering from a severe illness and frustrated by his lingering infirmity, he insists on working the family farm. At dinner one evening, exhausted and dusty after the day’s toil, he receives an important letter telling him he has been apprenticed to the binder, and will learn how to create books. Emmett’s family has long been against reading and is suspicious of books – he was even beaten for buying one at the Wakening Fair – but they also know that this represents his best opportunity for a successful future. Besides, the bookbinder has called for him, which is a summons no family can resist. Emmett is furious and frustrated, but he accedes to his father’s request to leave the farm behind and start anew.
Seredith, the elderly owner of A. Fogatini, Pawnbroker and Licens’d Bookseller, works in the town of Castleford, not far from the farm where Emmett lived and expected to die. Emmett steps into the shop and instinctively knows he was born to be there, but is warned away from touching anything that’s tightly locked up. Seredith believes deeply in the art of creating books and not selling them in order to keep them safe and away from those who would do them harm. There’s a good reason for this; it’s revealed that Seredith – and now Emmett, whose fever is a sign that he’s a born bookbinder – have the innate ability to bind a person’s worst memories within the pages of a book. Trapping those memories can free a person to live their lives without the associated mental pain, or leave their physical body nothing more than a shambling husk. The choice is up to the individual, but their powers are dangerous enough to cause others to hate and fear them.
When Seredith dies unexpectedly, her son, the cavalier De Havilland shows up to take over the business – and for him it is a business. He doesn’t scruple to only bind the memories of the willing but will provide a service for any who pay to have the memories of others bound. Caught between two mentors – and captivated by Lucian Darnay, a rich boy from Castleford who is the also the object of Emmett’s younger sister Alta’s romantic infatuation – Emmett will have to forge his own path.
The Binding is not a gentle story. It may start out echoing a few of its fantasy world progenitors – a bit of Harry Potter here, a bit of Roald Dahl there – but then it blooms like a coffin flower into something beautiful but annihilating, dark, full-bodied and fascinating. This is one visceral, ugly, incredibly difficult book to get through. It’s loaded up with heavy themes of rape, suicide, murder, child molestation, pet death and infanticide. Beware when you take it into hand.
And yet for all of the novel’s darkness, the worldbuilding it offers is fascinating, and the art of binding is reminiscent in a way of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. But what ultimately weakens the story somewhat is the shift, around two-thirds of the way through, from Emmet’s point of view to Lucian’s. I was eager to learn more about the world that I’d been plunged into and Emmett’s acceptance or rejection of exactly who he was destined to be that I was annoyed at having to spend yet more time with Lucian’s creepy rapist of a father. Emmett is your classic Boy-Raised-From-Poverty-To-Do-Good-Who-Fears-His-Destiny-But-Comes-To-Understand-It; he’s a bit bland, sure, but we head-hop from his point of view at such a crucial moment that I was actually irritated by the choice. By the end, the book had become too much about Lucian’s struggles, his issues with his father, his struggle to love Emmett, and the secret he’d had bound so many years ago – a memory that we, frustratingly never really get to learn about. Seredith’s character also gets short-shrift in favor of this, which is equally annoying.
In fact, much of the material about Emmett’s would-be love triangle with Lucian and his sister is ultimately a useless facilitator of tension. The plot could have easily been simplified by simply having Lucien and Emmett have a forbidden love affair complicated by the difference in their social station, but as it is, it instead adds negative material to the book’s creepy aura. I would much rather have been spending more time with Emmett and within the culture of the binders.
The Binding might enchant readers with strong stomachs, but they’ll also have to contend with getting only half the story they sign up for. It’s one of those books where you love the universe you’ve been transported into but the plot decides to move you several worlds away, and it never fulfils its early promise.