Thursday, 8 December 2016

The Binding Chair by Kathryn Harrison

May is only five years old when her grandmother imposes the Chinese tradition of foot binding to her. This affects her whole life, but being the strong person she is, she refuses to let it hinder her in her ambitions. Married to an older man who already have three wives, she is faced with a cruel man, his wives and a humiliating life. But May is not the person to suffer silently, so she breaks away and starts a new life as a prostitute. The aim is to find a wealthy Englishman to marry. She starts by learning English.

Life does not always turns out as is expected and May stays longer in her profession as she had anticipated. But one day Arthur Cohen turns up in her room and her life changes forever. He is not there for the usual reason, but comes as a representative of the "Foot Emancipation Society". He is there to help her, but falls hopelessly in love. He proposes to May who is reluctant to venture into a marriage with Arthur, who is a somewhat confused man. However, his insistency pays out and they marry.

As Arthur's wife she enters the life of a Jewish business family living in Shanghai. Arthur is living with and from his brother who is a wealthy businessman, while Arthur ventures into schemes bound to fail even before they start. May forms a bond with Arthur's niece Alice, and the story is set from the point of view of these two characters. It takes place in the beginning of the 20th century in Shanghai, London and Nice.  Along the way May and Alice meet a set of colourful women, all of them disfigured, either physically or mentally. Alice is set to make life easier for May who consistently resists, and May is trying to prevent Alice from falling in love and make decisions that will effect her whole life. In the end all women meet in Nice, in another setting, another kind of world, but all stuck in their own life's tale.

Through and through the book we get an insight into the complicated life of women exposed to foot binding. It is often horrific reading, and you can just imagine, or maybe not, the pain and complications that followed them during their whole life.

It is a wonderfully written book, well researched, compassionate and thrilling.  Life in China with its traditions and culture and the clashing with European values, makes this an intriguing story.

Wonderful characters, quite different who, by destiny, are intermingling in each others life. Well written, well developed characters and times. She writes about the essential questions of life; who are we? Are we formed by our past, traditions and culture? It is a story about class, race and gender, beautifully and engagingly written. Makes you want to read more by Kathryn Harrison. She has written several books; both fiction and non-fiction.

I bough this book in a second hand book store. It has a wonderful cover, as you can see from the picture. Have you read anything by Kathryn Harrison?

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