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The Binding Chair or, A Visit from the Foot Emancipation Society (2000)
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0060934425, Paperback)One of the women in Kathryn Harrison's The Binding Chair has a mind "which had always suffered from morbid imaginings." Harrison could be telling a gentle joke on herself here, for she has stuffed her novel with such imaginings. Here are broken fingers, abortions, Marathon Man-style dentistry, sodomy (not in a good way), and even an abused chicken. One particular morbidity, though, is the spur of the tale.
May, a young Chinese woman, suffers the brutal ritual of foot binding at the turn of the last century. The book follows May from a bad marriage (think Raise the Red Lantern) to Shanghai, "the infamous city of danger and opportunity." May--either despite or because of her foot's deformity--is considered a woman of astonishing beauty. "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." Her beauty, her fetishistically bound feet, and her quick mastery of a handful of languages earn her a pile of money and finally a Western husband.
May develops a close relationship with her husband's Jewish family, especially with her unruly niece Alice. Harrison's scrupulously researched novel follows the two of them from Shanghai to London and back again, encountering along the way a colorful cast of women who've all suffered a disfigurement, mental or physical, that echoes May's. Finally several of the women come together in Nice, where each works out her destiny. The Binding Chair is far-flung, geographically and emotionally, and never quite coalesces, but perhaps the author was intentionally seeking to make a story about the Chinese and the Jews that has a feeling of diaspora. You've got to hand it to Harrison. Most writers, upon developing a fascination with Shanghai, would write a nice article for Travel & Leisure and have done with it. Kathryn Harrison has forged an ambitious novel. --Claire Dederer
(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 14 Feb 2013 13:42:57 -0500)
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