Click here for reviewer Samantha Connelly's comments on The Binding Chair by Kathryn Harrison
We are all high-minded, mature adults here, and so I know it will make no difference to you that Kathryn Harrison, author of The Binding Chair, is best known for The Kiss, her true-life account of her incestuous affair with her father. Certainly, it made no difference to me. “Whoa,” I did not think upon seeing this book, “isn’t that the chick who did it with her father and then wrote a book about it? Maybe there’s something about that in this one, even though it claims to be about foot-binding! At the very least, I bet she knows how to write a good sex scene…” I am above that sort of thing. And so, I am sure, are you.
This, then, is the story of May Cohen, who has retired to Nice with her niece, Alice, for some well-deserved R&R. In her forty-nine years, May has done more living than most of us ever will, despite the fact that she can only walk very slowly and painfully on her tiny bound feet. Her lovely French villa has a swimming pool she cannot use, for she has never learned to swim, but May is not the type of woman to be held back by mangled, mutilated appendages (or, indeed, anything else). Accordingly, she interviews and hires a lithe young man to teach her to swim; and while she paddles and jerks awkwardly through the water, she looks back on the events that have brought her here.
Born in rural China near the end of the nineteenth century, Chao-tsing is permitted nearly five years of normal development before becoming acquainted with the binding chair. Her soft-hearted mother, whose feet are also bound, knows it is in Chao-tsing’s best interests to bind her feet – the highly-prized nubs will improve her marriage prospects immensely, if done correctly – but cannot bear to inflict such pain on her daughter. And so, Chao-tsing’s grandmother summons her to the chair, beginning the excruciating and permanently deforming process that will bend the girl’s feet in half and fold the toes under, forcing her to put her entire body’s weight upon the bent knuckles of her toes. Thrown into shock by the physical pain, and the trauma of seeing her own grandmother doing this to her, Chao-tsing is mute through the process. Her grandmother cautions her not to scream – “We can say you never cried out!” she exclaims proudly, words that will echo in the girl’s ears for the rest of her life. Pain, schmain; it all comes down to what makes girls more marriageable.
And, as it happens, Chao-tsing’s tiny feet (textbook examples of the Harmonious Bow configuration) do land her an enviable groom: a handsome silk merchant who lavishes her family with gifts of food and tea, fine silks and treasures. She can’t walk, but she’ll never have to; she’ll be surrounded by servants to attend to her every whim, she’ll be carried in a litter by bearers if she needs to go somewhere. A life of luxury, purchased at great price (albeit against her will); she is fortunate, her mother and grandmother remind her. But after the joyless, perfunctory wedding ceremony, Chao-tsing realizes that she’s made a devil’s bargain, and her husband’s home is nothing like how it was represented to her. For one thing, there are three pre-existing wives, who somehow slipped the groom’s mind during the marriage negotiations; this makes Chao-tsing a lowly fourth wife instead of an influential first wife, with hardly any status or power. Furious and miserable, Chao-tsing plots her revenge; with a little help and a lot of money, she runs away from the silk merchant’s house. Chao-tsing fetches up in Shanghai, rechristens herself May, and decides that, from here on out, no one is going to be the boss of her; she will be her own mistress, molding the world around her broken feet if necessary. Whether she succeeds is arguable; destined to be used, prized, loved, and reviled, May gives as good as she gets, cynically exploiting her terrible, mutilated beauty for all it’s worth.
Kathryn Harrison is a powerful, gifted writer, pulling no punches with her matter-of-fact narrative tone. In the hands of a lesser author, this could easily have turned into a cloyingly inspirational tale riddled with sentimentality, but Harrison’s severely lovely prose refuses to gloss over the uglier aspects of foot-binding and its psychological effects on afflicted women. Clawing her way up from her abysmal fate, May is treated as a freak, an abomination, by the Western world, an unsightly reminder of the supposed barbarity and foreignness of the Chinese. She’s a made thing, torturously shaped by male desire, and the juxtaposition of breathtaking beauty and grotesque mutilation evokes strong reactions wherever she goes; Harrison takes care to show what a lifetime of perceived freakishness can do to the mind.
The story is set in the early twentieth century, focusing on the complicated and intense relationship between May and her niece Alice, whom she regards as a kind of surrogate daughter. Alternating point of view and setting, we follow May and Alice both as children and as adults, exploring the connections between the women, and the war they wage over the emotionally-charged battleground of May’s wrecked feet. The protagonists, as well as the minor characters, are intricately rendered and convincingly layered; although their humiliations and fears are laid bare, the author does it with tenderness and art, never manipulating her characters for cheap thrills or plot advancement. In fact, the only thing that could possibly be considered missing is a hot father/daughter incest scene; but then again, we don’t care about sordid things like that, now do we?