The Binding is Bridget Collins’s debut foray into adult fiction. She has previously authored several popular Young Adult novels and has been trained as an actor at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts. Her background helps her in setting the stage for what can be described as an ambitious first novel and one that promises the reader an immersive experience into fantasy literature.

The promise of a good book — for those who still browse through bookshops — is often made by the cover art. Collins’s cover is decadent, an ode to a time when books were considered a luxury or a privilege, not crammed in bags and satchels for lack of time and space. This beautiful cover is accompanied by an enticing premise: in a time where books and bookbinders are regarded with fear and superstition, Emmett is a young boy who works with his father on their farm. He is recovering from a severe illness, the nature of which is kept hidden from the reader. This prolonged illness has left him weak, susceptible to hallucinations, blackouts and physically being unable to carry out any manual labour. Thus, when an offer for an apprenticeship with a bookbinder appears, Emmett’s parents cannot refuse.

In the world Collins has created, binders are regarded with fear and superstition and so, to the reader, a binder is only what Emmett perceives one to be: a creator of books, looked down upon by society at large. He is confused and anxious as he leaves his home thinking of how he has always been taught that books are vessels that spread despair in his world. Yet he is being sent away to a binder who will teach him the crat of how to create volumes upon volumes of books.

A debut foray into adult fiction is like a force of nature, a testament to the power of words and masterful storytelling

Collins sets the stage slowly and meticulously. The reader experiences Emmett’s frustration as he begins his apprenticeship. He can feel the undercurrent of something being hidden from him, and so can we. Trapped in Emmett’s thoughts, the reader lives through the painstaking work he learns as a binder. Each and every stitch of the cover that he makes, and yet being denied the satisfaction of holding in his hands the fruit of his labour, adds to a sense of unease.

Emmet’s mentor, Seredith, introduces him to a world far removed from his simple life as a farm hand but, like trying to feel one’s way in the dark, Emmett is plagued by “binder’s fever” that hinders his — and the reader’s — sense of understanding. The fever obstructs his power of perception; it is as if he is blindfolded and left to fend for himself. The pieces of the puzzle are interspersed between bouts of feverish visions and nightmares. Seredith’s keys and locked doors taunt Emmett as he tries to make sense of his circumstances. The reader is not given the privilege of getting ahead of the story before the protagonist, so we are left grasping at straws. Collins takes no prisoners when it comes to setting the pace but, at the risk of slowing down the plot, she takes her time to laboriously create the world around her characters: “I looked out at the expanse of marsh. The wind had died and now the clouds were massed in a thick grey bank, while the glints of water lay still as a mirror. Nothing stirred; it could have been a picture painted on the window-pane. Dead weather.”

Collins’s writing is rich in detail as she brings to life the world around Emmett, all the while maintaining a measured pace of the plot. The reader’s patience does not go unrewarded. Bit by bit, Seredith reveals the true nature of the life of a binder and the books they create. Each book captures something astonishing: a memory. Victims of despair, guilt or anger, in need of wanting to let go of thoughts and memories that hold their minds hostage, will confide in binders and then simply choose to forget and move on. The memory in turn is encapsulated within a book that the binder eventually binds and protects. This is a unique premise in fantasy literature. It is also an obvious parable of human nature and the tricks it is capable of playing on itself. Secrets are locked away, confessions kept hidden on pages that will probably never see the light of day. But what if they are? What if the person who chose to forget reads the book holding his or her own memory? These are questions that Emmett and the reader ask themselves again and again, until Seredith sees the right time to answer. She puts it simply, “They remember.”

“... Whatever people can’t bear to remember. Whatever they can’t live with. We take those memories and put them where they can’t do any harm. That’s all books are.” — Excerpt from the book

Despite her fading years, she tries to impart to Emmett the essence of their calling. The binder’s duty is sacred, like that of a trust. Binders are meant to protect the books under their care with their lives. Whilst Seredith is ruled by the old ways and the call to duty, there are other binders who trade the misery of others for greed and immoral purposes. When Emmett tries to forge his own identity as a “born binder”, he comes a across a book with his name on it. Suddenly, his life is thrown out of orbit. His past is no longer what he thought it was and threatens to change the course of his present and future.

Collins’s reader and her protagonist — both previously left rummaging in the dark — are awestruck as they finally see the light and the truth is revealed. The dust of this realisation has barely settled when the reader is plummeted into the plot at breakneck speed. There is a sudden shift in gears as the pace of the story quickens, but not at the expense of the plot. A change of narrator and a sudden introduction of a defiant love story are all ploys that pull the reader further into the tale. And throughout, Collins keeps the narrative in place like a master puppeteer. The story runs seamlessly towards its destination and is not dependent on any single character. At the same time, the reader remains hooked to the spellbinding prose while coming to understand that, much like in life, there are no heroes, that humans are prisoners of their own making and that actions have irreversible consequences that can never be evaded. The reader is forced to put away whatever preconceived notions she or he has and live the story, experience it. Like a force of nature, The Binding is a testament to the power of words and masterful storytelling and is relentless in driving its point home.

The reviewer is a freelance writer with a background in law and literature

The Binding
By Bridget Collins
William Morrow, US
ISBN: 978-0062838094

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, September 1st, 2019