The Bookbinder of Jericho | Pip Williams #AWWhistoricalfiction

Scraps. That’s all I got. Fragments that made no sense without the words before or the words after.

The Dictionary of Lost Words was such a huge success for Pip Williams and Affirm Press that I am sure they both approached her next book with a mixture of excitement and trepidation.

I had the good fortune to hear Williams speak at an Affirm Press gathering for booksellers earlier this year. She began by reminding us of the remarkable journey she had taken with TDOLW, first published on the 31st March 2020. Does that date ring any bells for you? Yes, the publication of her book coincided with the first of the Covid-19 lockdowns in Australia.

Using her diary as reference, Williams ran us through the many interviews, meetings and writer’s festivals she had lined up, that one by one got reduced in size, moved and eventually cancelled. Her words vividly brought back that time as we all quietly remembered where we were too.

Upon reflection though, Williams realised that this was when one of those magical, unexpected book moments occurred. Book shops and booksellers ‘pivoted’ and many lapsed readers suddenly returned to the fold. People were suddenly looking for something uplifting, inspirational and set in another time…and booksellers recommended TDOLW. It was the right book at the right time. Before she knew it Williams had a bestseller on her hands.

But where do you go next?

Fortunately when Williams was in Oxford researching TDOLW, she visited the Oxford University Press bindery and saw a brief film about the women who worked there. An idea was born!

The Bookbinder of Jericho is terrific historical fiction. Set during WWI in the suburb of Jericho, Oxford we follow the story of Peggy Jones and her identical twin sister, Maude, both workers on the ‘girls’ side’ of the bookbindery at Oxford University Press. Their side did the invisible work – folding, gathering and sewing the sheets of paper into sections, while the ‘mens’ side’ bound the books and gilded the covers.

Reading was such a quiet activity, and the reader in their parlour or leaning against the trunk of a tree would never imagine all the hands their book had been through, all the folding and cutting and beating it had endured. They would never guess how noisy and smelly the life of that book had been before it was put in their hands.

Jericho is an old suburb of Oxford that once sat outside the town walls. It was an industrial area along the Oxford canal (the Oxford University Press was just one of the factories to be found there) known for it’s poor drainage, open sewers and over crowding. Housing consisted of working class slums, worker’s cottages and houseboats on the canal. This is where Peggy and Maude lived, on a houseboat named ‘Calliope’ left to them by their mother who had died a few years earlier. Their houseboat is crammed full of books.

For those of us who love books, especially the feel and smell of books, The Bookbinder of Jericho is a real treat.

Through Peggy’s eyes we see the hardwork, effort and pride that went into making these lovely editions. She loves books and words and grabs any chance to read a line, a paragraph or a page. For most of the girls though it is just a job. For Peggy it is a chance to gather knowledge, soak up new ideas and glimpse another world. One where a poor, working class girl can not only get an education but attend the women’s college, Somerville, just across the road from the bindery.

“Your job is to bind the books, not read them”.

Gareth Evans, Esme’s husband from The Dictionary of Lost Words makes a poignant cameo appearance. He works on the mens’ side of the bindery and his wedding present for Esme is to create a copy of her ‘missing words’. The reverential way in which Gareth, Peggy and Ebenezer, the old book repairer create this book for Esme, is heartening for any booklover. A reminder of how precious books and words really are.

Mistakes happen though. Despite advances in modern technology, books are still torn, misbound and damaged before they reach the bookshelves of your favourite bookshop. Like Peggy, I cannot bear to see these words wasted. My home is much like the Calliope, bursting at the seams with discarded books, the rejects, waiting patiently for me to read them.

The Bookbinder of Jericho has a lot more to offer lovers of well-researched historical fiction than a ‘town and gown’ story. There’s the war of course, and the story of the nurses and female ambulance drivers. The companion of Peggy & Maude’s mother, Tilda volunteers as a nurse in the Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) – you may also remember Tilda from TDOLW. In France she meets Isobel Rae from Australia (one of the characters based on a real person). She had been living in an artist colony in Étaples when the war broke out. She stayed on to work as a VAD in the Étaples Army Base Camp. When she wasn’t nursing, she painted scenes of the camp.

Cinema Queue, Étaples Army Base Camp, 1916, AWM | Isobel Rae

I could have easily written a response that focused on Maude’s echolalia and how this impacted on the choices made by Peggy. Or another one on the inadequate way that the women’s suffrage movement considered the needs of their working class sisters. The Belgian refugee crisis was unfamiliar territory for me and I could have written a whole post exploring it further. Then there was the Spanish Flu pandemic that killed so many young women as well as the fate of disfigured and wounded soldiers when they tried to settle back into regular life.

Williams packed a lot into her story about Peggy Jones, lover of words.

The Bookbinder of Jericho is a rich, satisfying story full of memorable characters and fascinating historical details. You don’t have to read The Dictionary of Lost Words first, or at all, but I’m glad I did. A perfect way to while away a rainy weekend.

Loss. The Concise Dictionary simply defined it as: Detriment, disadvantage. See lose, the entry said. I turned back a few pages. Lose: Be deprived of, cease by negligence, misadventure, separation, death. It didn’t quite explain the feeling I had.

Title: The Bookbinder of Jericho
Author: Pip Williams
ISBN: 9781922806628
Imprint: Affirm Press
Published: 28 March 2023
Format: Trade Paperback
Dates Read: 28 March 2023 - 1 April 2023
Origin: ARC
This post was written on the traditional land of the Wangal clan, one of the 29 clans of the Eora Nation within the Sydney basin. This Reading Life acknowledges that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are our first storytellers.

20 thoughts on “The Bookbinder of Jericho | Pip Williams #AWWhistoricalfiction

    1. I enjoiyed researching Iso Rae and seeing her paintings online – I can’t believe I had never heard about her before. Well, I can, as Wikipedia says, ‘Few of these works were acquired by public galleries, with art historian Sasha Grishin arguing that they were “generally regarded as too intimate, too personal and too feminine to be included”.’


        1. Well, I looked it up in his 2013 book, and she is mentioned in the chapter on expat artists, but not the comment quoted at WP and there are no images in the book. However, Betty Churcher’s The Art of War includes her, and has two pictures ‘German prisoners working’ and ‘Sentries at prisoners’ tent’, which the index says are held at the AWM.
          When I Googled these paintings, I found a collection of 7 works held at the NGV:
          So, next time I’m in the NGV I shall hopefully be able to see them IRL!


          1. The AWM have about 10 of her paintings in their collection (including the one I have in this post), but the Art Gallery of NSW only has one – I will look for it next time I go (soon I hope to see the Archibalds).

            Liked by 1 person

  1. I read your whole review, honestly! But of all the Hist.Fic that I dislike WWI is right up there (fictionalizations of the Holocaust are alone at the top). I actually thought the discussion of women’s words in DOLW was pretty good. But what I want to say is that too many Hist.Fic. writers treat Suffragism as monolithic. England’s Suffragettes were upper class and pro-war. Australia’s suffragists were anti-war and similar to womens’ libbers (or vice versa) in their support for the poor and women’s refuges etc; and there was at least one leftish, anti-war breakaway from the Suffragettes in England, because Miles Franklin was a member.


    1. I had already given my book away before finishing my review so I couldn’t check some of the details, but the stuff about suffragists was referring to local groups that Peggy had contact with as well as what was going on in London via the character Tilda.


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