The Binding Song - Elodie Harper
The Binding Song - Elodie Harper ****
You're not sure what you're getting into when you start Elodie Harper's The Binding Song, but in that respect you're much like Janet Palmer, the new psychologist who has just taken up a position in a Norfolk prison working with sex offenders. Coming in on the back of a number of suicides in that wing of the prison, all kinds of theories present themselves that might hint at a direction the book could take - a gritty prison drama, a conspiracy thriller, a horror novel in a Silence of the Lambs-style investigation or even - considering Janet's motives for taking the position - a personal crisis driven by a family tragedy. The Binding Song manages to skirt between each one of these not so much in a way that it isn't sure quite what it wants to be, but rather in a way that seeks to make them all credible facets of its subject. That's a bit of a challenge.
There's definitely a bit of gothic in the story, as Janet comes to HMP Halvergate as the new prison psychologist. The prison is a bit of a throwback to older ideas of prison confinement and rehabilitation, where it's considered that a few beatings will do the most dangerous offenders no harm. The governor seems to approve of taking this kind of a hard line approach, but he is still required to show at least lipservice to the regulations and gives Janet an impossible schedule to complete with any kind of thorough or professional treatment that such offenders require. An air of dark mystery also pervades the prison, not just through the recent cases of suicide, but also around the sudden disappearance of the previous psychologist. Leaving no notes of the last eight month behind to follow-up on, Janet has her work cut out for her, and she suspects that the authorities at the prison have something to hide.
Gothic conspiracy thriller and prison drama then, but the novel has already hinted at a horror angle in its prologue description of an escaped offender being confronted and killed by a white figure in the woods with dark hollow holes for eyes, and soon Janet has to confront the very real fears of a number of the prisoners that they are being pursued by an avenging demon seeking retribution for the crimes, the rapes and the murders they have committed. The scientific minded Janet is reluctant to accept that there is a supernatural force at work, but she can't overlook the reality that the men believe in the 'white visitor' and are terrified by her to the extent that further suicides soon take place on Janet's watch. There must be a rational explanation, and Janet suspects that one of the inmates might even be manipulating the fears; a handsome, dangerous, highly intelligent sex offender who shows no remorse for his crimes, and who appears to be seeking to manipulate the prison psychologist as well with mind games.
There's certainly enough of a hook in the premise to get you started on The Binding Song, but sooner or later the author is going to have to deliver on the ambitious path she has set out on. Elodie Harper cleverly keeps the sceptical reader on-board by bringing in all manner of rational and irrational explanations - for there is nothing rational about the minds of some of the people Janet has to deal with as a prison psychologist. The author brings in Biblical verses, literary quotations and references to Greek mythology that hint at a wider context beyond the Gothic horror, but she also delves into her main character's own psychological make-up, Janet's thoughts going back often to her twin sister Izzy, who is seems clear has been involved in some kind of family tragedy. Is Janet as stable as she thinks she is or is there actually a rational explanation for what is going on at Halvergate?
What is great about Harper's writing in The Binding Song is that, for all the elements that she brings into it, she doesn't leave any glaring holes in the plot that test the readers patience. Like Janet, she considers all the rational explanations - drug use in the prison causing hallucinations and mass hysteria, experimental therapies and a potential cover-up by the prison authorities - but doesn't try to fool anyone that they might present the whole answer to the kind of sinister activities going on. The reader suspects however that eventually the author is going to be driven down a path where she will be forced to deliver an answer that doesn't entirely satisfy all the paths she has opened. It's a tribute to the writing then that no obvious solution presents itself to the reader, and yet, Elodie Harper nonetheless finds a credible way of meshing human reactions and behaviour with supernatural elements. There's just a little bit of compromise of credibility involved in one big coincidence, but it's one that the reader will happily go along with for what turns out to be an unexpectedly satisfying conclusion to a thrilling read.
The Binding Song by Elodie Harper is published by Mulholland Books on 22nd February 2018.
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