Click here for reviewer Stephanie Perry's comments on The Binding Chair by Kathryn Harrison
Provocative and spellbinding, Kathryn Harrison’s The Binding Chair is both pleasing and painful to read. Harrison’s forthrightness, which earned her much acclaim and also criticism for her shocking depiction of her incestuous relationship with her father in the memoir The Kiss, is grippingly evident in her fourth novel. Set against the backdrop of late nineteenth and early twentieth century China, Harrison meticulously unfolds the story of May through an intricate design of flashback-like technique and the juxtaposition of her life against the personal struggles of her husband, her young niece, a displaced governess with a lisp, and a woman fleeing from her own inner turmoil.
The story opens with a mature May, determined to learn to swim despite the limits her bound feet impose. Immediately, the reader confronts a protagonist who is both charming and repulsive in her stubbornness. Quickly, however, Harrison spins the story backwards to May’s memory of her grandmother binding her feet for the first time. As the sole of her foot is bent unnaturally in half, so May’s spirit is shaped by the disturbing tradition. She is shaped for a lifetime of servitude as a fourth wife to a petulant, sadistic husband in an arranged marriage, but by force of will she manages to narrowly escape her intended fate. From there, Harrison deftly maneuvers between May’s life as a prostitute, later as the wife of a Western crusader, and the lives of those characters whom May influences.
The fierce determination that allowed May to break free from her torturous short marriage prevails throughout the novel. She substitutes one life of service, as an object for her husband’s humiliating sexual violations, for another type of service, a Chinese prostitute for Western customers. In this role, though, May revenges the savage ritual of foot binding by refusing to accept Chinese customers. By flagrantly denying these men, she reinvents herself as a foreigner, mastering several languages and modes of behavior as well as an opium addiction. When she meets Arthur, the man who will become her second husband, May is captivated by his innocence, his virginity and his obsession with her broken, bleeding feet. Accustomed to others averting their gaze and ignoring the misshapen, useless extremities tightly bound in white cloth, May welcomes Arthur’s gentle fascination, his desire to “save” what cannot be saved. With him, May carves a new life with her sister-in-law Dolly and her husband Dick. More importantly, though, May sees in her niece Alice a substitute for her own lost daughters, vehemently instilling in her the imminent dangers of falling in love or, worse yet, of allowing oneself to be “bound” by marriage. Her great interest in Alice’s well-being ultimately risks undoing their relationship entirely, particularly when young Alice is caught filling May’s opium pipe. The power struggle between the two further illustrates May’s struggle within herself, the theme that is the carrying force of the novel.
While the constant fluctuation between time and location threatens to unravel the carefully woven thread binding the lives of the characters, Harrison manages to keep the connection taut. The delicate connection allows one to see May not only as she sees herself, but how others view her as well. The variance in perspective adds layers of depth to an exquisitely crafted novel. Equally as powerful as the story’s heroine is the prose: rich in detail and figurative language. Harrison offers images that must be gently savored, lingered over and re-read, images that, by turn, are repulsive and compelling but always honest. Her gift lies in making the mundane mystical; the mystical, mundane.
While some readers might take issue with the ending, seeing it as neatly tied bow atop a ravaged package, it does speak to the ambiguity of the protagonist. May’s complexities, her ability to entice and disarm, demand a simple and brutally honest ending, which is exactly what Harrison serves. Overall, The Binding Chair is a compelling, though at times disconcerting, read.