Trigger warning for rape.
The idea of a technology that can remove unwanted memories is not new. Most of us can easily recall The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. But Bridget Collin’s constantly shifting novel, The Binding, gives us the premise in a different way. In the world of this novel, binders—magical book binders—can extract painful memories from people and lock them away in books. This might sound like a good idea. Who among us does not have memories we wish we didn’t have? But in this world, bindings are not just used to help people heal from terrible trauma; they are also used in terrible, unspeakable ways. The first third of the book is very bleak. I was astonished to find that The Binding contains a beautiful queer love story.
Emmett Farmer is a troubled young man when we meet him at the beginning of The Binding. He’s doing his best to help pull his weight on the family farm, but he constantly castigates himself for his lingering physical weakness and his episodes of violence that he doesn’t remember afterwards. There are a few hints about Emmett’s mysterious ailments before he is whisked away to apprentice to the local binder—a woman who is frequently called a witch by people who don’t fully understand her professional ethics. Emmett feels at home in the bindery in a way he hasn’t felt in a long time. Unfortunately for him, his mistress suddenly dies and Emmett is immediately re-apprenticed to a man much less ethical than his first mistress. Where Emmett’s first binding mistress used her abilities to take memories away from people who were clearly suffering, this new master uses his ability to attract rich clients with horrible, abusive details they’d rather not share with the world.
At this point, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to continue reading The Binding. The things that Emmett’s new master’s clients were doing are chilling and completely reprehensible. I didn’t want to see the protagonist to get wrapped up in the appalling misuse of binding in his new digs. Thankfully, I didn’t have to wait too long before the book turned on its head again. On his very first job for a particularly nasty piece of work, Emmett runs into Lucian Darnay. The son of the client affects Emmett in a way that sets his head spinning. The meeting makes Emmett realize that he himself has been bound. Even though bindings are supposed to be willing, Emmett learns that he unwillingly gave up the memories of his love for Lucian. Lucian has been similarly bound, but it takes much longer for him to retrieve his lost memories.
The middle part of the book, which details how Emmett and Lucian first met and fell in love, is my favorite. The relationship between the two young men is original and organic. The two compliment each other wonderfully, but their prickly class consciousness keeps things from being too easy. The exciting and satisfying ending where Emmett and Lucian right a lot of wrongs is also a lot more enjoyable than the rough first third. (Readers who make it through the first third of the book will be richly rewarded. That first third is hard, however, and leaves plenty of questions about how binding words, how it came to be, and what on earth the Crusades were. Be prepared for some awful stories from people who seek bindings.) Do you know the expression, “Burn it all down”? There is a lot of literal and figurative burning it all down.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration.