Ranging from rural China in the late 19th century to bustling Shanghai at the dawn of the 20th century to the French Riviera in the 1930s, Kathryn Harrison's new novel, The Binding Chair, tells the spellbinding story of one woman's attempt to outrun her fate while coming to terms with her own painful past. Harrison, the author of three previous novels and the controversial memoir The Kiss now shifts her focus to the life of May, an elegant and mysterious Chinese woman condemned to a life of physical suffering and longing for spiritual freedom. But The Binding Chair is also the story of many displaced people and their tales of heartbreaking loss, self-discovery, and self-invention.
At the age of five, May is forced to have her feet bound, and the continuing agony she endures as she matures is accompanied by dreams of deliverance into a good marriage. But ultimately, her marriage to a wealthy silk merchant marks her entry into a new nightmare, in which she becomes the object of his perverse sexual tendencies and intense physical abuse. Too crippled to bear her away from the merchant's home, the same small feet that were to guarantee her an easy life now bind her to an intolerable fate. After several suicide attempts, May bribes one of the gardeners to carry her on his back to Shanghai, where she sheds her old identity to begin a new life.
The setting for her new beginning, however, is an upstairs room in a Shanghai brothel, where she sheds her Eastern clothing for the desires of Western men, while abandoning her Eastern traditions to embrace Western literature. There she meets Arthur Cohen, an spirited young Australian living in Shanghai, who comes to May not as a customer but as a member of the Foot Emancipation Society -- a misguided group of do-gooders dedicated to ending the practice of foot binding. Arthur becomes obsessed with May, begs her to marry him, and brings her into the home he shares with his sister and her wealthy husband.
But rather than fulfill her dream of escaping the past, life with Arthur proves to be just the beginning of May's collision with it. Longing for a child of her own -- and still searching for the illegitimate child she gave up for adoption while at the brothel -- she places all her hopes for freedom in her impetuous and fearless niece, Alice. Still, May is haunted by her own dark past, and the only escape she finds is in clouds of opium.
All the women of The Binding Chair are running from something, or toward it. Throughout the novel, women struggle to sever the ties to roles or personas to which their traditions and societies would bind them. In addition to May's attempt to ease the chronic pain in her feet, Harrison pulls no punches in illustrating the suffering of all her female characters; for each, "binding" is inextricably associated with brutal, physical pain. Eleanor Clusbertson, a brilliant mathematician relegated to a dreary life of teaching in a girl's school, endures the unnecessary extraction of a front tooth in the vain hope of correcting a lifelong lisp and reshaping who she is perceived to be. Everywhere these women turn, the harsh consequences for living outside the boundaries of tradition are grimly depicted, as in one scene where an adulterous woman is publicly mutilated.
But this viciousness -- at time brutal, at times breathtaking -- is balanced with an eroticism wrought with rich, sensual language and imagery. Harrison dazzles in her ability to reveal her characters most fully when undressed. Whether using sex to prove freedom, or enduring the brutalities of an unforgiving sexual hierarchy -- or even, at times, when her characters find love (and they do) -- their longings and conflicts are coaxed to the surface in the dingy, dimly lit bedrooms of lovers, or on the tearstained silken sheets of a Riviera mansion.
The characters of The Binding Chair are coping with loss -- lost sons, daughters, hopes, loves -- but they are also searching for lost parts of themselves. And ultimately, whether suffering wounds to the heart or scars on the body, they all seek escape, relief, and if possible, rebirth. In The Binding Chair, Kathryn Harrison binds their tales together beautifully, weaving a novel that is at once enormously sensitive, heartbreakingly tragic, and surprisingly hopeful.