The Binding Chair

‘The Binding Chair, Or A Visit From The Foot Emancipation Society’ by Kathryn Harrison

Seductive story explores unraveling of cultural bonds


BindingChairBy Rebecca Redshaw
Reprinted from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Sunday, June 18, 2000
For more than 1,000 years, foot-binding was practiced in China. Many young girls ages 3 to 5, if they hoped to marry well, were subjected in their youth to having their toes gradually broken, folded back toward the heel and bound.

Until the early 1900s, the ultimate feminine goal was to wear a 3-inch-long slipper as an adult, even if it meant taking excruciatingly small steps and living in constant pain.

The condition of May Cohen’s feet is ever present in “The Binding Chair” by Kathryn Harrison, whose last book, “The Kiss,” explored the author’s four-year incestuous relationship with her father. In the new book, May’s physical state is omnipresent, whether as a young girl exposed to indignity and humiliation in a prearranged marriage or as a prostitute determined to educate herself and better her station in life or as a married woman who escapes emotional pain by relying on an opium pipe to cloud her past.

Arthur Cohen, May’s husband (thus the Anglo surname for the Chinese character), was one of May’s clients at the brothel and the only person ever allowed to touch her feet.

Suzanne, a beneficiary of May’s questionable generosity, is introduced early in the novel, and then returns at a pivotal time.

The story line jumps forward and backward in time, requiring the reader to shift gears mentally every chapter. This is a difficult writing technique when so many characters are involved, but Harrison pulls it off splendidly.

The people are more than two-dimensional, and since the flow of the novel is character-driven, the reader is given permission to care about even minor involvements in May’s life.

The stir caused by May’s visit to a shopping area in London demonstrates the vast differences in cultures and offers a glimpse of May’s subtle sense of humor. Because she is unable to walk any distance, two Chinese bearers carry her through the business district in a makeshift rickshaw. Brought before a judge for being a slave owner, May more than holds her own with repartee that frustrates and, ultimately, infuriates the judge into a dismissal.

There is no single event that turns the tide of “The Binding Chair.” It is a novel that explores the challenges and problems of life. Harrison reveals the growth of her characters through the interaction of their daily lives and, in a most exotic way, seduces the reader into becoming involved.

On his deathbed, Arthur, who was perceived as the loser in the family, says to May, “ ‘Sometimes, I wonder, if I understood you better, would I love you less?’ He held his hand out to her. His fingertips were blue. ‘No,’ he answered himself. ‘It wouldn’t make any difference.’ ”