Do you have a memory or many memories that never fail to bring pain or shame or grief? What if you could have that memory just disappear? You would never be reminded of the memory, because, even if someone started talking about the event that created the memory, you wouldn’t be able to hear them. You wouldn’t even know that you made the memory disappear. In some ways, that sounds incredibly liberating – imagine not being weighed down by something you did or said or, perhaps more sympathetically, some terrible trauma you experienced.
This is the basic premise of Bridget Collins’ marvelous book The Binding. The mechanism for this erasure is books, which is an amazing conceit. In late 19th century England, bookbinders capture the specific memory in a book, which then, traditionally, would be stored forever in the bookbinder’s vault. We meet Emmett Farmer, a farm boy, struggling to complete some work. He stumbles home where his parents inform him that he will be apprenticed to a local bookbinder. His parents seem disgusted and afraid and Emmett is devastated. Nonetheless, the next morning, he is off to the swamp and apprenticed to an elderly woman. He spends most of his days cutting leather covers and performing the manual chores of a bookbinder. Meanwhile, he observes a few people who visit and are swept into a forbidden room, only the emerge shaky and blank-faced. When he asks his master about what goes on behind the door, she tells him he’s not ready. The times he passes beyond the door he is struck with Binder’s Disease, which gives him nightmarish visions. His master dies and he passes to a new master who takes Seredith’s books to sell to the highest bidders. Among them, Emmett observes a book with his own name on it. This leads to the second part of the book, which is Emmett’s book, or the memory that he asked to have erased.
This isn’t a face-paced novel, by any means. There are long, cold, gray days full of hardship and banality. There are gorgeous, sunny, heady days of joy and self-discovery. All of these types of days stretch over pages and pages. I think this was in service of getting you in Emmett’s shoes, so, for the most part, I liked this; however the plot moved slowly. While the plot moved slowly, the picture that Collins was filling in was of a world that was, as Thomas Hobbes noted, “nasty, brutish, and short.” (Be advised, there is a lot of brutality against animals and people.) The picture that she was creating was also one of memories and how we remember things – with rose colored glasses, with overwhelming gloom, with an overarching sense of the barometric pressure at the time, or with a sense of floral perfume flooding the memory.
The ending of the book is somewhat haphazard and disappointing as the protagonists rush hither and thither (generally for good reasons) and make many problematic choices. By the time I got to the end, though, I was invested enough in what I had read to stay with it.