What is lost when knowledge is withheld?
In 1914, when the war draws the young men of Britain away to fight, it is the women who must keep the nation running. Two of those women are Peggy and Maude, twin sisters who work in the bindery at Oxford University Press in Jericho. Peggy is intelligent, ambitious and dreams of going to Oxford University, but for most of her life she has been told her job is to bind the books, not read them. Maude, meanwhile, wants nothing more than what she has. She is extraordinary but vulnerable. Peggy needs to watch over her.
When refugees arrive from the devastated cities of Belgium, it sends ripples through the community and through the sisters’ lives. Peggy begins to see the possibility of another future where she can use her intellect and not just her hands, but as war and illness reshape her world, it is love, and the responsibility that comes with it, that threaten to hold her back.
I have been glued to this novel for the past few days. So much so, that I am not sure where to start with this review. The Bookbinder of Jericho is everything it’s companion novel The Dictionary of Lost Words is, and if possible, more. Williams’ prose is enchanting, and the way she blends historical events into the fiction of the story is seamless, making for an unforgettable novel.
Following Peggy as she navigates her life amidst changes brought on by the First World War made for a very interesting perspective to read through. Working at a bookbinders and looking out for her twin sister is all she is expected to do with her life but Peggy wants more. Especially in a world where women still only very few privileges, and even less so with Peggy’s lower social status, ‘more’ is something she feels she can only dream of. Peggy very quickly became one of my favourite characters along with her sister Maude, and not only because she is the main character. Peggy is bright, thoughtful, curious, and questions everything which I loved about her.
Maude is also a wonderful character in this novel, and as much as she is Peggy’s family, she is also sometimes viewed by her as a hinderance to her getting more from her life. It is clear from the way that Maude is talked about and described in the novel as what might have been described as ‘special’ at the time. Now she would most likely be described as being on the Autism Spectrum. I felt an instant love for this character. I found her insight into this story and it’s characters highly valuable. I really liked the way that Williams’ wrote her character, making her presence in the novel one I loved to read.
The prose of this novel is simply beautiful. Williams’ captures the heart and soul of a scene with a finesse that makes the words shine off the page. I lost count of the number of times I just had to sit there with a phrase after I read it. This novel made me smile, it made me laugh, it made me cry. There is so much pain and heartache as expected with a novel set when this one is, but it is balanced with warmth and love, and in such a way that I feel doesn’t take away from the horrors the war brought.
I cannot finish this review without talking about the seamless integration of both novels. This is well and truly a companion novel as opposed to a sequel. Beginning at the cusp of the First World War, this novel also settles itself nearing the end of it’s companion novel. It brings a few of the well loved characters from The Dictionary of Lost Words and they fit naturally into Peggy’s story while not taking over which I loved. With this novel, Williams’ yet again demonstrates her skill in blending historical fact with the fiction of the story in such a way that is engaging to the reader. I highly recommend this novel to any reader of historical fiction.
Thank you to NetGalley, Affirm Press and Pip Williams for gifting me this ARC (Advanced Review Copy). I am leaving this review voluntarily. This title will be published 28th March 2023.