Saturday, November 18, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: The Bookbinder by Pip Williams

I received this book for free from Netgalley. That did not influence this review.

If you loved The Dictionary of Lost Words (I did!), and didn’t want it to end, you can read Pip Williams’ new historical novel, The Bookbinder. It’s not a sequel, but rather a sidestep into the lives of characters occupying a similar time and place, with a slight reference to the earlier book. 

Peggy Jones is a bindery girl. She and her identical twin sister Maude both work in the women’s side (the bindery) of the Clarendon Press, located in Oxford but an entirely different world from the Oxford. They are “town” while Oxford folks are “gown.” Yet it is Peggy’s lifelong dream to attend Somerville, the women’s college. Peggy has the intelligence and drive, but feels held back by the need to take care of her sister. They are orphans and Maude is neurodivergent.

Peggy tries to satisfy her desire for knowledge by collecting bits and pieces from the bindery that fail inspection. She fills the houseboat on the canal that she and Maude share with imperfect books and book fragments.

When WWI begins, Belgian refugees arrive. Although made welcome at first, their presence is resented as the war wears on and more and more local boys are lost. However, Maude makes a new friend of one of the refugees, and Peggy begins to feel left out.

Feeling she needs to do more for the war effort, Peggy volunteers at the hospital as a reader. There she meets a Belgian soldier, Bastiaan, who is horribly disfigured by war injuries. Their time together brings them closer, and when he is discharged from the hospital, they continue to see one another. They fall in love. But Peggy is unable to give up her dreams of becoming a scholar. When opportunity arises to try for a scholarship, she has to choose between striving for admission to college and pursuing her romance with Bastiaan. She also has to come to terms with the fact that Maude may not need her as much as she thought.

This is a touching novel that shows the struggles of women to claim their place in the world. It also demonstrates the hardships of war for both soldiers and the people at home. The writing is lovely, but the novel has a leisurely pace and didn’t draw me in as much as The Dictionary of Lost Words.  But that could be because I’ve been reading a lot of “women during the wars” books lately and I’m ready for a change.

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