Binding Chair: Or, A Visit from the Foot Emancipation Society

Binding Chair: Or, A Visit from the Foot Emancipation Society

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by Kathryn Harrison
     
 

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In poised and elegant prose, Kathryn Harrison weaves a stunning story of women, travel, and flight; of love, revenge, and fear; of the search for home and the need to escape it. Set in alluring Shanghai at the turn of the century, The Binding Chair intertwines the destinies of a Chinese woman determined to forget her past and a Western girl focused on the

Overview

In poised and elegant prose, Kathryn Harrison weaves a stunning story of women, travel, and flight; of love, revenge, and fear; of the search for home and the need to escape it. Set in alluring Shanghai at the turn of the century, The Binding Chair intertwines the destinies of a Chinese woman determined to forget her past and a Western girl focused on the promises of the future.

Editorial Reviews

bn.com

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.

—Elise Vogel

Claire Messud
A resonant, elaborately constructed novel, rich in incident, bustlingly peopled, often surprisingly funny. —New York Times Book Review
Laura Morgan Green
...an entertaining novel. Harrison writes graceful and richly descriptive prose...
Salon
Gadi Taub
After three successful novels and a controversial memoir of her sexual relationship with her father...1997's The Kiss....Kathryn Harrison steps outside the realm of ultimate transgressions and total devastation with this deeply humane novel.

Wall Street Journal
Scott Tobias
Three novels into her roundly venerated career, Kathryn Harrison sparked an uproar with her controversial 1997 memoir, The Kiss, which centered on the four-year affair she had with her long-absent father after meeting him as a young adult. In her previous work, Harrison had never shied away from issues of incest and abuse, but removed from the comforting safeguard of fiction, her confessional suddenly amounted to gross exploitation. To her credit, Harrison's compelling and intricately structured follow-up, The Binding Chair, remains unaffected by the critical firestorm, boldly delving into the same treacherous eroticism on which she's staked her reputation. As with The Kiss, she's primarily concerned with how childhood trauma can pervade and even define a person's life throughout adulthood. Spanning four decades, from the turn-of-the-century brothels of Shanghai to the south of France between the world wars, The Binding Chair follows the tumultuous affairs of two women who attempt to abandon their designated place in society. It's hard to imagine a more potent metaphor for female oppression than Chinese foot-binding, a crippling procedure which essentially involves breaking the foot in order to shape it into an unnaturally petite, doll-like miniature. Bound as a little girl, May's choices are as limited as her mobility. Sent off to an arranged marriage with a bigamist husband in rural China, she plots an ill-fated escape that lands her in a Shanghai brothel, where she becomes addicted to opium. She's rescued by a well-heeled Australian gentleman from the Foot Emancipation Society who, ironically, becomes so perversely enraptured with her feet that he winds up marrying her. Back at his brother-in-law's estate, May meets a kindred spirit in her niece, Alice, a precocious teenager who herself embarks on a series of unhealthy sexual relationships. Harrison alternates chapters between May and Alice in their coming-of-age years, effortlessly paralleling their adversities in two different periods until their damaged lives converge for good in the second half. The Binding Chair is occasionally undone by Harrison's taste for sensationalism, but her connection with the subject matter and her assured, seductively limpid prose are hard to resist.
Onion AV Club
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
As she demonstrated in Poison, Harrison renders historical settings with textured fidelity. Here she spins an exotic and irresistible tale set mainly in Shanghai at the turn of the last century, with evocative side trips through Russia, England and the French Riviera. The changing culture of China is reflected in the life of a compelling character. Born in 1884, May must submit to foot binding as a child, and thereafter endures constant pain and the constriction of her freedom. Despite her deformed feet, at 14 she escapes a sadistic husband and pursues a new life in a brothel in Shanghai, where she eventually marries a kindhearted Jewish immigrant from Australia who's a member of the Foot Emancipation Society. May's stubborn, indomitable spirit isn't hampered by her husband's inability to find a job, since they live in the opulent household of his sister and her husband, and their two daughters--the younger of whom comes under May's thrall. Manipulative and autocratic, May spends her life despising her useless feet, fighting convention and adoring her high-spirited niece. But she cannot escape the ancient legends and superstitions that shadow her life, or the opium habit she develops after several emotional blows. Lost children are one theme here, and the varied ways people deal with such loss. Another is the lot of women striving to be independent in a hostile world. Harrison describes in harrowing detail the barbaric foot-binding ritual, various forms of sexual brutality, parental abuse and official torture. She is equally deft at social comedy, erotic titillation and tender sentiment. This is her best work to date, an intricately and elegantly constructed narrative about intersections of character and fate, history and chance, and the ironic, tragic fulfillment of hearts' desires. 12-city author tour. (May) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
Library Journal
A turn-of-the-century tale of a Chinese girl who flees from foot binding to brothel to marriage with a Westerner. Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
New York Observer
Kathryn Harrison’s previous novels have already established her as an exceptionally, almost ridiculously gifted writer, whose cool, well-crafted sentences conceal their emotional message until some small detail–a sigh, a ripple of water–tips the author’s hand. In The Binding Chair, she has managed to resurrect the illicit–a remarkable achievement in the Age of Consent–and to mark again her thundering talent and her twisted sensibilities.
Vogel
May 2000

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 girls' 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 times 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.

Elise Vogel is a freelance writer living in New York City.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780060934422
Publisher:
HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
06/28/2001
Series:
Harper Perennial
Pages:
336
Product dimensions:
5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.75(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Apprenticeship

The gatepost, stuccoed pink to match the villa, bore a glazed tile painted with a blue number, the same as that in the advertisement. Please inquire in person. Avenue des Fleurs, 72.

A hot day, and so bright. Sun flared off windowpanes and wrung sparks from freshly watered shrubs. One after another, applicants paused at the locked gate, considered its wrought-iron flourishes and the distinctly self-satisfied hue of the residence glimpsed through its bars. They checked the number twice, as if lost, hesitated before pushing the black button in its burnished ring of brass.

When the houseboy appeared with a ring of keys, his severely combed hair shining with petroleum jelly, they ducked in response to his bow and followed him through the silently swinging gate with their heads still lowered, squinting dizzily at the glittering crushed white quartz that lined the rose beds along the path.

"Won't you sit down?"

May received them in the sunroom. Behind her chair, glass doors offered a view of terraced back gardens, an avalanche of extravagantly bright blooms, a long, blue-tiled swimming pool that splattered its reflection over the white walls and ceiling.

Of the eleven men and women who answered her notice, four did not resist staring at May outright, and she dismissed them immediately.

Whatever the name Mrs. Arthur Cohen might suggest to someone answering an ad, May would not have been it. To begin with, wasn't Cohen a Jewish name? And there shewas, unmistakably Chinese. Now who in 1927 had encountered such an intermarriage, even among the Riviera's population of gamblers and gigolos, its yachtsmen and consumptives and inexhaustible reserves of deposed, transient countesses living off pawned tiaras? In the summer months, when sun worshippers overtook the city of Nice — women walking bare-legged on the boulevards, and bare-lipped, too, tennis skirts no lower than the knee and not a smudge of lipstick, their hair bobbed, their necks brown and muscular, canine — May Cohen looked not so much out of style as otherworldly.

Despite the heat, she received her eleven candidates in traditional dress: a mandarin coat of pink silk embroidered with a pattern of cranes and fastened with red frogs, matching pink trousers, and tiny silk shoes that stuck out from under their hems like two pointed red tongues.

Her abundant and absolutely black hair was coiled in a chignon. Pulled back, it accentuated a pretty widow's peak, a forehead as pale and smooth as paper. Her eyes were black and long, each brow a calligraphic slash; her full lips were painted red. She had a narrow nose with nervous, delicate nostrils — imperious, excitable nostrils that seemed to have been formed with fanatical attention. But each part of May, her cuticles and wristbones and earlobes, the blue-white luminous hollow between her clavicles, inspired the same conclusion: that to assemble her had required more than the usual workaday genius of biology. At fifty, her beauty was still so extreme as to be an affront to any sensible soul. Her French, like her English, was impeccable.

Of the remaining seven applicants (those who did not disqualify themselves by staring), the first offered references from a local sanitarium. Perhaps this explained his solicitousness, his tender careful moist gaze, as if she were moribund. "Please accept my apologies," she said. "You won't do."

The second was, she decided, an idiot. "You have had — it was an accident? " he asked, and she smiled, but not kindly.

The third, a narrow, ascetic Swiss with an inexpertly sewn harelip and a carefully mended coat, looked as if she needed employment. But she wrinkled her nose with fastidious disapproval, and May rang for the houseboy to see her out.

The fourth's excitement as he glimpsed the tightly bound arch of May's right foot, his damp hands and posture of unrestrained anticipation: these presaged trouble. May uncrossed her legs, she stood and bid him a good afternoon.

The fifth and sixth changed their minds.

The seventh, who was the last, would have to do. He was taciturn; and that, anyway, she approved.

"When do I start?" was his longest utterance.

"Today," May said. "Now." And the houseboy provided him with bathing costume, towel, and robe, a room in which to change.

May, using her jade cane, slowly climbed the stairs to her suite of rooms, where she took off all her clothes except the white binding cloths and red shoes — for without them she couldn't walk at all — and put on her new black bathing costume. She pulled the pins from her hair, brushed and braided it, and, wearing a white robe so long that it trailed, began her long walk down the stairs. On the way she met Alice, her niece, breathless and ascending two at a time.

"I'm late," Alice explained, unnecessarily. And then, "Please!" as May blocked her way with her cane.

"For what?" May asked. "For whom?"

"I'm meeting him at the Negresco. We're having tea, that's all, so don't let's quarrel." Alice tried to push past, but May held the cane firmly across the banister. "Look, he'll think I'm not coming!"

"Just remember." May pointed the tip of her cane at Alice's heart. "We all die alone."

"Please! I haven't time for this now!" Alice made an exasperated lunge for the cane, which May abruptly lowered so that Alice lost her balance; she ended sitting on the step below her aunt's feet.

May looked down at her. "I'm more fortunate than you."

"And why is that?" The words came out tartly, and Alice scowled, she stuck her chin out belligerently; still, she considered her aunt remarkable for the tragedies she'd survived.

"Because," May said. "Opium is a better drug."

"Well," Alice said, after an amplified sigh. She stood up. "Any advice?" she asked, sarcastic.

May shrugged. She raised her perfectly symmetrical eyebrows and turned up an empty...

Meet the Author

Kathryn Harrison is a graduate of Stanford University and the Iowa Writer's Workshop. Her first novel, Thicker Than Water, was a New York Times Notable Book of 1991. Her second novel, Exposure, was also a New York Times Notable Book, and a national bestseller. She lives in New York City with her husband, the writer Colin Harrison.

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Binding Chair or, a Visit from the Foot Emancipation Society 3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 7 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I thoroughly enjoyed this book. The language Ms. Harrison uses is rich. . . so rich in fact, that reading this book was like being there, watching the drama unfold. I recently went on vacation and read this book twice in a row because I was so upset when I finished it the first time. One really begins to understand May. This book has also made me thankful for things I didn't think of before- strong, healthy feet for one ;-) May's journey (as well as every other character in the novel), though completely different from my own, really touched me.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Enchanting novel with fascinating characters.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
Ms. Harrison has once again produced a fine piece of work. This is a very heavy book that takes you into the mind of the protagonist, allowing one to experience empathy in the way that literature should. You really have to sit back and let the book come to you versus trying to extract from it. I read this book on the train, during my commute to and from work and often I found myself drawn into the story and in the places she describes, whether it was in Shanghai, the south of France, or on the train ride across Russia. Very introspective and nonapologetic.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Although this novel/story may seem to have great suspense and throughly intriguing words, the plot is quite confusing to grasp onto since each chapter talks of different subjects and things. The meaning of the novel was horribly written, lame, and racist. I for one, would not recommand anyone to read this book.