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.