Book Review: The Binding Chair or, A Visit from the Foot Emancipation Society by Kathryn Harrison

The Binding Chair or A Visit from the Foot Emancipation Society
by Kathryn Harrison

In this historical fiction novel, we meet our main character May-Li at the turn of the last century in China. Early on in the book she experiences the trauma of foot binding at the hands of her grandmother. From here, the book charts May’s path from abusive marriage to her escape to Shanghai. Although she must turn to prostitution as a means of income, her astonishing beauty, bound feet, and quick study of languages allow for speedy upward mobility. Ultimately landing her a husband from Australia.

May becomes a fixture in her husband’s Jewish family and forges a special bond with his niece Alice. The expertly researched novel covers the pair’s journey from Shanghai to a boarding school in England and back to China. Along the way, readers are introduced to other women who have all, much like May, experienced some sort of physical or mental defacement. While at times I felt like the book was trying to cover too many characters, too many stories that didn’t help move the narrative along; this cast of women did serve as a relatable reflection of May’s bound feet to a Western audience perhaps unable to conceptualize the rituals effects.

Even so, The Binding Chair felt broad, both in setting and emotion, in a way that I thought unnecessary and left the narrative feeling incomplete. However, in reading some reviews and articles about the book, others have argued that the enormity of what Harrison takes on in this novel speaks to feelings of diaspora. In a story charting the path of a Chinese woman in a family of Jews this reading would make sense. Conceptually I applaud it but stylistically I found it challenging. 

At the end of the day, while the story was cluttered and the fetishistic scenes regarding foot binding felt a little gratuitous, Harrison does afford readers an amazing investigation into a different world.

Who should read this book – Anyone interested in Shanghai at the turn of the last century and the Chinese ritual of footbinding.

Add to your list if you loved – Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See or Daughter of Fortune by Isabel Allende.

Other books by Kathryn Harrison – The bestselling memoir The Kiss about her incestuous love affair with her father.

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3 thoughts on “Book Review: The Binding Chair or, A Visit from the Foot Emancipation Society by Kathryn Harrison

  1. Sounds interesting. I did love “Snow Flower and the Secret Fan,” but your criticisms of this story make me wary.

    1. Yeah, I’d give this one a pass. I picked it up at a library book sale recently and read a huge chunk from a waiting room when I didn’t have anything else to occupy my time. I love historical fiction but this one definitely teetered towards been TOO weird.

  2. That’s an interesting one Beth, I’m not sure if I will be reading it, though it is good to know of it’s existence. Maybe I will get around to it someday. I’ve read Mandarin, by Robert Elegant. I learned a lot about the China of that era through his book and I recommend it. It’s easy to castigate the Japanese mothers and grandmothers for disfiguring children’s feet in this way. Sometimes I think though, that all societies still impose standards of beauty on people that lead to different kinds of mutilations. For example, rhinoplasty is quite a brutal intervention, yet you must see that all the time in your part of the world I imagine.

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