Title: The Bookbinder of Jericho
Author: Pip Williams
Published: 28th March 2023, Affirm Press
Status: Read February 2023 courtesy Better Reading Australia
“Your job is to bind books, not read them…”
Pip Williams blends history with imagination, weaving a captivating, poignant tale of desire, duty, grief and love in The Bookbinder of Jericho, a companion novel to her award winning fiction debut, The Dictionary of Lost Words.
Set within the bindery of the Oxford University Clarendon Press, we are introduced to Peggy, who, wielding her late mother’s bonefolder, gathers and folds the pages of books she dreams of studying at University, but as a Town, with the added responsibility of her vulnerable twin sister, Maude, such ambition has always seemed impossible. Then World War I breaks out, heralding change that seems to bring the future Peggy wants within her grasp, but war always calls for sacrifice.
Told in five parts, beginning in 1914 and ending in 1918, The Bookbinder of Jericho is well grounded in historical fact, exploring the gatekeeping of education and knowledge, womens suffrage, the horrors of war, post traumatic stress, and the devastating spread of Spanish Flu. It’s also a thought provoking and emotional story, rendering longing, romance, heartache, and loss with sincerity.
Peggy is a complex central figure, intelligent and dutiful but prickly, her resentment of all she is denied, by her gender, her social status, and her responsibilities, is never far from the surface. Though they are identical in looks, Maude’s contented nature and simple needs contrasts sharply with that of her twin. The supporting characters, including family friend Tilda (who appeared in The Dictionary of Lost Words), and Belgian refugees Lotte and Bastiaan, are well drawn and enrich the story.
Evocative prose effortlessly conjures movement and place. I found it easy to visualise the sisters crowded narrowboat lined with books and manuscripts, the balletic grace of the bindery women sweeping pages into their arms, the intimidating architecture of Oxford University, and Maude carefully folding her array of colourful paper stars.
The Bookbinder of Jericho is a rich, lyrical, beautifully crafted novel, I won’t hesitate to recommend.
Available from Affirm Press
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