The Bookbinder of Jericho
By Pip Williams
Imagine spending your life surrounded by the most mind-expanding books being written. Imagine spending your life in a city absolutely overflowing with knowledge and learning. And then imagine being told that it is not your place to read these books or to engage with all this knowledge because it is not your job to use your mind: it’s your job merely to do the handiwork. Now imagine all of this happening as the First World War devastates Europe and brutally remodels all of society.
This is the state of Peggy’s life when we meet her in Pip Williams’ new historical novel. You may remember that Pip Williams’ debut novel The Dictionary of Lost Words was one of our earliest Debuts of the Month. It quickly went on to become an acclaimed bestseller. Much like the book that came before it The Bookbinder of Jericho presents us with a lesser known snippet of history and retells it insightfully and memorably through the eyes of disregarded women.
Peggy and her twin sister Maude live on a narrowboat in Oxford. While they both work as bookbinders for the university press – gathering, folding and assembling pages day after day – and while Maude is content to live her life this way, Peggy desperately yearns for more. All around her, especially at Somerville College, students and scholars are making academic progress while she is constantly reminded: “your job is to bind the books, not to read them”. Since all the men are being shipped off to fight on the fronts of WWI, it falls to the women to keep the country running – and there is no time for one’s own ambitions.
Just as Peggy begins to feel as though her humdrum and frustrating future is locked in place, refugees arrive from Belgium’s ravaged cities and she starts to feel as though things really could change. As her whole world is reforged by the war and the wounded, Peggy spots a chance to unleash her curiosity and intellect… only to have that opportunity further complicated by love and all the difficult choices it precipitates.
The Bookbinder of Jericho, it could be argued, surpasses The Dictionary of Lost Words particularly in terms of weight and depth. Both of them are concerned with the ways in which knowledge is created, hoarded and traded – and particularly in how, even if they are not excluded outright from this process, women are certainly undervalued when it comes to the business of books and academia – but Williams’s newest thoughtfully navigates a period and a field especially subject to patriarchal bias.
Rousing and adept in its portrayal of strong female relationships and achingly deft in its depiction of the physical and psychic torment wrought by war, The Bookbinder of Jericho is essential reading for every book lover… and for every person who has ever suspected (hopefully that’s all of us) that the experiences of women are routinely under-estimated in popular history. Elegant, poetic and deeply moving.