Review – The Bookbinder of Jericho by Pip Williams

The unread piles of books beginning to crowd my little B&G room have a peculiar habit of growing faster than I can explain away, but in spite of my love of stories, there are very few authors whose books I will always, without fail, scramble to get hold of. When I do, I will steal away with them, fingers crossed for upcoming grey skies and rain, the kettle boiling, Hozier/Lorde/Bon Iver (no, I won’t be taking criticisms on my obnoxious music tastes) playing, and curl up to try and squeeze myself between the letters, to temporarily live inside the pages. 

One such author is Pip Williams, the writer behind 2021 multi-award-winning debut The Dictionary of Lost Words and, more recently, The Bookbinder of Jericho. And while I didn’t find it quite as beautifully executed as Dictionary, Bookbinder didn’t disappoint.

I was first made aware of the novel late last year, when Williams’ publisher Affirm Press posted a cover reveal on their Instagram. I was ecstatic, then promptly let it fall to the back of my mind. In March of 2023, I was vaguely aware of its finally landing on shelves, but even the new books of one’s much-beloved storytellers may be pushed aside by the chaos, the newness of things when one moves to a far-off city for university. (“Far-off” sounds like something the narrator of a fairy tale might say, so I’m happy applying it here as someone from Newcastle, New South Wales, exactly four and a half hours’ drive away.)

It wasn’t until the event Williams hosted in partnership with the Canberra Times and the ANU, held in the Kambri Cultural Centre on campus, that I recalled my excitement and determined to have it in my hands as soon as possible. I might note that this resolution was conditional: my first priority was to avoid paying the $32.99 it was being sold for at the event. I was fairly confident I could persuade Affirm to send me a copy in exchange for a review as I had so thoroughly enjoyed Dictionary, which they kindly did. (Thanks besties.) I left the lecture theatre more eager to read than I had been in a long while.

I remember feeling that The Dictionary of Lost Words embodied everything I love about words and literature. Bookbinder carries a lot of the same themes (and largely shares the context and setting, with a few familiar characters). Set against the atmospheric backdrop of Oxford University, The Bookbinder of Jericho explores the life, relationships, and ambitions of a woman in early 20th century England. Throughout the novel, Williams navigates these experiences through the lenses of literature, war, social class, and gender. We follow young, “pretty Peggy Jones,” a bindery-girl at Oxford University Press, whose job is to “bind the books, not read them,” but who longs to study instead.

Bookbinder’s great strength is its characters, who are already complex when we meet them, and whose development throughout the novel is seamless. Here, I think it did a better job than Dictionary, which felt marginally more inclined towards aestheticism than fleshed-out characters and their relationships. I also loved the relatively slow but realistic and still compelling plot, which is becoming characteristic of Williams’ writing—the dream for people like me, who are always in it for the vibe of the thing.

I think the novel left something to be desired in the writing, though. The beautiful prose was what I found most striking about Dictionary, but unfortunately I wasn’t especially impressed by the writing in Bookbinder. There is every possibility that my tastes have just changed since reading the former, but I sense an inkling of a shift in William’s style from the first book to the second, and that maybe something of the earlier eloquence was lost in favour of wider appeal. Much of the criticism Dictionary received was relating to what (I feel) may simply have been its literary style. Historical fiction doesn’t typically lean this way, but Williams’ writing is vaguely reminiscent of emerging literary voices in the vein of R.F. Kuang and Sally Rooney. I suspect that, understandably, there may have been expectations for the style which were not met, which might have put some readers off. Something about the style of Bookbinder felt more in line with its genre, but less in the distinctive voice of Pip Williams. I wonder if this was in response to some of the negative feedback on Dictionary. I also would like to note, however, that I have read very legitimate grievances, and if this book wasn’t for you, that’s so valid. Take my thoughts with a grain of salt; I’m only one person, one perspective. I have no authority whatsoever on the subject—I just talk with wildly unearned confidence.

I liked some of what Williams had to say about women’s suffrage, a topic she engages with a lot throughout the novel—super appropriate, of course, for the mid-WWII period. Her main idea is the fact that the vote did not extend to all women—only those in possession of land or a degree (which Oxford wouldn’t provide to women, even on the completion of a “degree course”)—excluding the vast majority. However, in only touching on land ownership and education, Bookbinder really only delves into class, and to me it felt like there was a gap left to be filled—the glaring whiteness of the early women’s suffrage movement, and the exclusion of women of colour in a context where it was made near impossible for women of colour to obtain either land or a degree. In a 2018 article for UK organisation Voting Counts, Natalie Leal writes, “While there was no direct, obvious discrimination based on race written into the legislation, implicit structural discrimination was still writ large, as so often happens race and class intersected.” 

There is a surprising lack of conversation regarding this in relation to her books, possibly due to their both being fairly new. I did some digging to see if anyone else had reached a similar conclusion to me, and eventually stumbled upon a blog post which touched on the space for racial discourse in The Dictionary of Lost Words, which I found resonated with what may be considered the gap in Bookbinder.

Jenny A. at Righter of Words takes a brief but thought-provoking linguistic approach, which I would have loved to read more of. Dictionary has a particular interest in the way that certain kinds of words go ignored in particular circles (notably academic and literary). The protagonist Esme is raised in an Oxford ‘scriptorium,’ where words are collected and compiled—and routinely excluded—for each edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. Esme begins to collate her own volume of omitted ‘women’s words’ which are overlooked—usually for vulgarity or being ‘lesser than’: they are “by women, about women, and for women” . Dictionary is interested in the words that are left out of a book which, having historically been put together chiefly by white men, is fundamentally biased, and asks whether that truly makes them any less credible or valuable.

The author notes that Dictionary is “focused…on early feminism in predominantly white circles,” but wonders about vernacular which is typically used within the circles of particular racial minorities, and is often looked down upon. They mention AAVE (African-American Vernacular English) as a well-known example, and consider it a “missed opportunity.” I agree; some ideas about the way that all women’s words (including and perhaps especially women of colour) have been excluded could have made for such a brilliant contribution to the plot.

Slightly more recent ideas about intersectional feminism didn’t quite reach these books, and I do think so much depth could have been added with a deeper dive into the historical exclusion of all women within academia, suffrage, and linguistics. Of course, however, not all books need to cover all issues, and Dictionary and Bookbinder absolutely pose valuable questions about class and gender. I thoroughly enjoyed both, and maintain that both are valuable contributions to Australian—and global—literature. 

With the announcement of The Dictionary of Lost Words being adapted for TV, I hope to see more of Pip Williams and conversation surrounding her books. I’m excited to see what she produces next. 

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