Review of The Binding, Bridget Collins. Borough Press.
Just about everything I thought I knew about this book was disrupted by the end. I thought there would be bookish secrets from the past, lost keys, messages on torn paper, appearances, vanishings, learned tomes in chained libraries. And to a certain extent these things are present. Books, libraries and hidden secrets are hardly new in literature – even the cover design of the book is a romantic blazon of blue and gold with floral motifs. But these are different secrets and a very different sort of library
The author, Bridget Collins, has published YA novels before but this is her first adult novel.
Part Copperfield with elements of Potter, my first impression was that this was a YA novel with a couple of four lettered words dotted around in order to aim the work at an adult market. In this I was wrong I suppose. Yet I often find I don’t understand artificial distinctions that are made between adult reading and young adult. Yes there have always been children’s books but teenagers used to read pretty much the same as their parents – minus the Kama Sutra of course which was kept locked away somewhere.
It is ironic that the central characters in the narrative are themselves young adults. The things which happen in the book – both good and bad – happen to young people, while their elders and betters circle around creating havoc and making everything much, much worse. And yet it is not considered suitable for certain age groups to read about things which happen to their own kind?
The title The Binding does not refer to the most obvious definition of a book binding – ie the gold tooled leather cover and marbled endpapers – although these certainly play a part in the story, but ‘binding’ is a metaphor for quite a different field of endeavour.
Collins has a magic realist way of evoking settings and particularly the weather which is almost an extra character. Here there is a rustic way of life, tumbledown cottages on the moors, snow on the thatch, the wind sighs, the cold sears, the sun when it shines casts its rays over dusty floorboards, tools in the binder’s workshop wait patiently in the racks.
There are polished bannisters and light rooms with tall windows, there is quite a lot of moonlight and a young man who has suffered a mysterious illness is despatched from his family farm where he is happy and where he expects to spend his life, to serve an apprenticeship in a book binding workshop which he knows nothing about and where he does not wish to be. The reasons for this become clear as the book unfolds.
There is no definitive historical context for the work much of which is fantasy – yet there are horses and carriages and the postman calls once a week. The shade of Mr. Dickens peeps out from among the pages of the narrative, particularly in the obsequious and sinister character of de Havilland, descriptions of Castleford with its grime, its brothels, freezing alleyways and workhouse.
Knowledge is always a kind of magic, says one of the characters. Or is ignorance bliss? That is the question that lies at the heart of the book.
As well as being a page turner The Binding is an elegant disquisition on memory, the meaning of memory and what constituent part of our mindset is played out by the things that have happened to us in the past. What would we choose to forget if we were able and what would that forgetting do to us? It is also a love story.