‘Imagine you could hide a secret. Forever.’
Set in an alternate past in which the binding of books is a magical process, people have their most traumatic memories erased and bound into books.
I have to admit, I initially wanted to read The Binding mainly because I kept seeing the gorgeous cover in the bookshop where I used to work and I coveted it, which feels quite appropriate. Having read it, I really don’t know what genre I would peg The Binding as being.
It is one of the most genuinely romantic books I’ve ever read; its shape and construction (and marketing) feel quite “literary fiction”; its setting is historical, or rather alternate-historical, and the central conceit of the binding itself is decidedly magical realism. I have a bit of a problem with the way in which established “literary” authors poach from genre fiction to set the boundaries of their stories while still plugging their novels as literary rather than fantasy or sci-fi etc. That being said, The Binding really really doesn’t feel like it’s doing that. It just feels like an unpretentiously beautiful story that rather organically draws on everything with very little self-consciousness.
In the first part, we follow the teenage hero Emmett, who has been sent to apprentice one of the mysterious book-binders after a lengthy and unspecified illness. Knowing nothing about what the binding actually entails, he assists a binder called Seredith in the physical side of book construction, while slowly learning more about the magical properties of the books Seredith creates. When Seredith then dies and Emmett is taken on by another binder, he starts to learn more about how binding functions beyond his limited understandings of it, and starts to find out how what he has learnt applies to his own past and those he has met.
Sometimes fantasy novels can go too big in their ideas or their worlds without bothering to make sure they are watertight. The Binding is actually incredibly neat in its magic, setting the boundaries clearly and following it to its various natural conclusions. We don’t need to hear about the whole world, just about the relevant world of the characters, and the lore of this world never invades on the clarity of the story. The idea of ‘binding’ is a genuinely intriguing one, and it is used far more cunningly than the tag-line in a lot of the marketing suggests (‘Imagine you could hide a secret. Forever.’).
The way Collins uses the three parts of the novel to build up her timeline and fill in the gaps of how the world works with this particular form of magic is really very clever, holding off vital details in a way that winds you up alongside the characters and makes you want to read swiftly on in desperation to get all the pieces of the narrative jigsaw.
The first part I initially found a little slow to get into, something which suddenly made sense as I was thrown into the second half and carried along with the narrative, making the third part a much-needed and very fulfilling completion of the narrative. It’s almost as if you could read the three parts in any order, although that would sacrifice a lot of the dramatic tension, such is Collins’ grasp on her own narrative, and the tightness of the story leads to an impressively satisfying conclusion.
I found The Binding absolutely magnetic and I loved the richness of the story and the descriptions of the world. Although the magic is intriguing, explanations of how and why it functions manage to never take over the story or obscure the central characters. The book is, at its heart, a love story, the rest is just its beautiful binding.