Review: Historical Fiction – Forgetting & Familiars

The Binding – Bridget Collins

Memories are tough to imagine: meticulous and muscular, fractured and fragile and ephemeral, forgotten and evoked and etched into our character – yet, what if you could extract them, etch them onto a page, and forget your grief, your regrets, or your gravest memories?

This is the tempting yet terrifying premise of The Binding: the tale follows Emmett Farmer as he’s apprenticed to the peculiar art of extracting torturous and disruptive memories from the desperate, the exploited, and the defenceless, transforming them into an attractive volume for a less attractive fee, and leaving the purchaser – or victim – with less of themselves. With memories as fragile and valued as this, what has Emmett forgotten?

Told in three acts from three perspectives – two characters, three moments in time – the novel transforms from the fantastical to the romantic. The private, devious practise is left in the dark after the first act, and Collins devotes more time and poetic writing to painting a detailed, and, at times visceral, portrait of Emmett’s developing affections and their devastating physical and psychological effects. Collins’s prose is rich with detail and description, and though it’s occasionally too decorative to picture, her portrayal of the devilish de Havilland and Emmett’s antediluvian tutor Seredith are adept, true-to-life depictions.

The Familiars – Stacey Halls 

‘Prudence and Justice’: the formal motto of the Shuttleworths – the aristocratic family that young, naïve, and pregnant Fleetwood is married to and mistress of – that forms the firm, unforgiving worldview of the mighty and the magistrates in 1612. Yet, if there was prudence for those on trial for witchcraft at Pendle that same year, there was also prejudice.

Stacey Halls’s historical fiction novel The Familiars follows Fleetwood as her privileged life is laced into the prejudices of the witches’ persecution when her midwife, Alice Grey, is suspected of witchcraft. Dependent on Alice, the wild-eyed druggist she finds wandering in the forest, for her fourth pregnancy to produce a descendant for the Shuttleworths, Fleetwood’s destiny weaves fatefully with Alice’s.

The writing is attractive and addicting, with the depictions of life for Fleetwood pulsing with her desperation not just for Alice’s proficiency in prescriptions but for her friendship, too. With marriages, miscarriages, and a fight against a frighteningly merry magistrate, The Familiars is full of graceful and graphic imagery, from the familiar glimpses of a flaming fox to Fleetwood’s fiery confrontation with Alice’s grimacing father.

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