The Binding by Bridget Collins

The Binding

This was an extraordinary novel that I’ll review carefully so as to give a taste of the premise without spoiling what is a cracking plot. Basically, The Binding is set in a parallel Victorian-type England where books are either forbidden or a guilty pleasure. Certainly, they are treated as something to be feared. That’s because, in this world, they aren’t the kind of books we’re accustomed to enjoying. In this place, books are where people store their memories – mostly unpleasant, guilty secrets or recollections of tragic circumstances, but sometimes also wonderful ones. The way people’s memories get into books is through the process of ‘Binding’. Instrumental to this process is the Binder – the person who has the power to do the transfer and thus wipe the person’s memory. So, for example, if a woman is raped, she can have the memory erased when it’s transferred into a book; likewise powerful and cruel people can ensure their victims also forget what has happened to them; married women can ensure memories of their husband’s, say, infidelities, are also removed and so on.

Ethical Binders store the books of memories in vaults, but like anything so personal, binding as a craft and business is open to abuse and an illegal trade in binded books exists.

When the novel opens, the reader is introduced to young Emmett Farmer, a man who has been afflicted with a fever that indicates he has the ability to become a Binder. Against his will, he is apprenticed to an old, feisty woman to learn the craft only, she is reluctant to teach him. Dwelling in a remote house in the marshes, Emmett nonetheless meets clients who come to have bindings, but also experiences the fear and prejudice of those who loathe the craft and those who practice it. But it’s when young Lucian Darnley comes to the house that Emmett cannot strike his impression of the man or the feelings of anxiety and loathing he arouses. All this, however, becomes irrelevant when tragedy strikes and Emmett is forced to both leave the marshes and practice a skill he barely knows let alone understands. 

I won’t say too much more except that while I was initially a little confused reading part one and found myself struggling to make meaning, waiting for an explanation to be forthcoming. It’s only once I started part two that in a very clever and satisfying manner, part one becomes crystal clear and the story evolves in ways at once beautiful and yet, because you can see where it’s going, heart-breaking as well. 

The premise is so startlingly original, the characters and world so well drawn, that I found it hard to put the book down. A fantastic novel that explores the relationship between memory, identity, love and bigotry and the lengths people will go to in order to conceal their villainy but also protect their heart.


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A Superior Spectre by Angela Meyer

What a marvellous and original book. In blending history and science fiction, Angela Meyer has created a work of literary prowess that lingers in the imagination long after the last page.

Told from two viewpoints (mainly), this is the story of Australian Jeff who, longing to escape not merely his past, but his secret, hidden self, flees Melbourne for the Scottish Highlands and, eventually, an island. But Jeff carries more baggage than simply what he regards as his shameful desires. He also has a device that allows him to escape his deteriorating corporeal frame and enter the mind and soul of someone from the past. That someone is young Leonora. Warned he can only use it three times, Jeff ignores the advice, and uses the equipment to escape his own life and experience Leonora’s at will.

Motherless Leonora lives in the Scottish Highlands in the 1860s with her father, tending the land and animals of the local laird. Content with her lot, loving the knowledge passed onto her by Mr Anderson who manages the laird’s many animals, Leonora is inquisitive, kind and keen to learn as much as she can. When she not only befriends the young laird but starts to have strange visions and yearnings which she cannot reconcile, she wonders what is happening to her.

When her father sends her to join her aunt in sooty, noisy Edinburgh, Leonora is inconsolable. Torn from her old life, the only constant is the man she senses lurking behind her eyes, on the periphery of her mind and the strange, impossible visions and strong, sensual urges his presence arouses. Uncertain what is happening to her, fearful she is going mad, possessed or both, Leonora’s life begins to unravel. There is only one way she can be saved, but selfish, indulgent Jeff is no hero.

Two lives are at stake, but only one can survive…

Exquisitely written, this book evokes both a distant future where human contact and companionship can be replaced by life-like devices and technology gives us entrée to the past and others that is both dangerous and exhilarating. It also plunges readers into history and Scotland post-enlightenment. This was a time when women and science were pushing boundaries and the mind was a new territory, ripe for exploration and exploitation.

Unique, rich and incredibly sensual and sexual, this novel takes us to the edges of desire and beyond, exploring issues such as loss, regret, choices, shame, sexual fantasy and reality, and the depths and heights to which human nature can both plume and strive. It also examines boundaries – those imposed by our sex and sexual desires, social constraints and culture and how, even we’re free, we create our own cages and then rail against them.

What also makes this novel so very different is the way it not only segues between male and female point of view but how, at times, these either blur or become so distinct as to appear as if they’re alternate species.

Clever, convincing and unputdownable, Meyer’s debut novel is sensational. My sincere thanks to NetGalley and the publishers for a copy. What a ride. What a read.

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The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid

When the reclusive, elderly and utterly glamorous Hollywood screen idol of last century, Evelyn Hugo, invites an obscure journalist, Monique Grant, to write an exclusive story about her for a magazine, little does Grant – or her employer – know what she’s agreed to do. A fading star who captivated audiences and the public with her films and the gossipy stories of her many husbands, affairs, the terrible losses and magnificent successes she survived, Hugo is still an enigma to many. The chance to put the record straight once and for all is, for Monique, too good to be true.

Struggling with personal issues, Monique nonetheless is flattered and seizes the opportunity being given to her, only, as the days go by and Hugo’s incredible tale unfolds, she also wonders why, of all those who could have written this story, she has been chosen. What possible reason could this powerful, intelligent woman, with fox-cunning and an unapologetic knack of always getting what she wants, have for choosing her?

Taking Monique and thus the reader back to her childhood in Hell’s Kitchen in New York, Hugo’s story is breath-taking in its audacity, courage and chutzpah. Beautiful, mildly talented, but knowing how to use the gifts she’s been given to forge ahead, and not caring what others think, Hugo’s tale is as much about female subordination, patriarchy, the Hollywood star-system, sex, sexuality, beauty, ageing, power and its abuses, as it is about a woman learning to navigate a life for herself and those she loves through this.

Taking heed of Hugo’s story, Monique finds herself alternately touched and inspired, inspired to use the lessons Hugo’s imparting to improve her own life. But when she learns the truth behind the story, about why she was chosen to write it, it threatens to unravel not only what she thought she knew about the actress, but about herself as well.

This is an easy, terrific read that takes you back in time on one woman’s remarkable and not always easy to stomach journey. The hurdles and prejudices she overcomes, the way in which men particularly underestimate her and others, the choices she bravely makes, and the hard decisions she stands by are compelling reading. Not always easy to like, it is easy to fall in love with Evelyn Hugo – the hard, wise, and always compassionate woman – even when at her hardest and most selfish. Terrible things were written and thought about the beautiful starlet, but none were as bad, raw or honest as what she wants Monique to write now.

Question is, can Monique do the woman justice? Especially once the truth is revealed…

Great escapist read.

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