May 15, 2000 12:00 PM

by Kathryn Harrison

Kathryn Harrison’s fourth novel may not be as controversial as The Kiss, her 1997 memoir about incest with her father, but it is no less provocative. The Binding Chair is a dark and sensuous adventure in exotic settings—late-19th-century Shanghai, London, Siberia and the French Riviera—that follows the increasingly strained relationship between an impressionable English girl, Alice Benjamin, and May-li Cohen, a Chinese former prostitute who becomes Alice’s aunt through marriage. With a liking for opium, feet crippled by a traditional foot-binding ritual, and a willful spirit, May-li appears an unlikely mentor. But she’s a memorable model of both narcissism and redemption. Despite shifts in time, multiple story lines and a large supporting cast, The Binding Chair (subtitled A Visit from the Foot Emancipation Society) unfolds like a series of exquisite Chinese boxes, filled with imagination, metaphor and magic. (Random House, $24.95)

Bottom Line: Supple, sole-searching novel

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