Kathryn Harrison 1961-
American novelist and memoirist.
The following entry presents an overview of Harrison's work through 2000. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volume 70.
Harrison received a measure of critical praise for her first three novels, Thicker Than Water (1991), Exposure (1993), and Poison (1995). However, her fourth book, a memoir entitled The Kiss (1997), in which Harrison details a lengthy incestuous relationship she had with her father, met with widespread criticism that was largely sparked by its controversial subject matter. Harrison had previously fictionalized this relationship in her novel Thicker Than Water. While The Kiss has been faulted by many commentators for its titillating confessions and for what they see as a rehashing of an earlier work, other critics have lauded the memoir's stark intensity and lyrical prose.
Harrison was born in 1961 to Edward and Carole Lang, in Los Angeles, California. Her parents separated when Harrison was young, and shortly after, her father remarried. Harrison attended Stanford University and later the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop. When Harrison was twenty years old, she entered into a consensual incestuous relationship with her father, an affair that began with a single kiss, which served as the inspiration for the title of Harrison's memoir. For four years, Harrison and her once-estranged father maintained a sexual relationship, always meeting far away from Harrison's college and her father's community where he had a family and worked as a preacher. The affair ended when Harrison's mother passed away. Harrison has worked as an editor at Viking Publishers in New York. She was awarded a James Michener Fellowship in 1989 and a New York Foundation for the Arts' artist fellowship in 1994.
In Thicker Than Water, Harrison depicts the dark side of what seems to be a glamorous Los Angeles lifestyle. Isabel, the story's narrator, is part of a wealthy yet highly dysfunctional family. She endures a childhood fraught with neglect and abuse, an adolescence encumbered by psychological problems, and a young adulthood marked by her mother's death and an incestuous relationship with her father. Exposure centers around a woman struggling with issues from her childhood and her relationship with Edgar, her father. Edgar is a successful photographer who uses his young daughter as a model for sexually suggestive and morbid photographs. In Poison, Harrison chose to set her novel in seventeenth-century Spain and again addresses themes of illicit eroticism and the mistreatment of women. By intertwining the tales of two very different women, Maria Luisa and Francisca, Harrison underscores her recurrent themes by contrasting a strong, assertive character with a meeker, repressed character who is forced to live under bleak circumstances. Harrison's most well-known and controversial work, The Kiss, is a memoir that recounts her four-year consensual affair with her father while she was in her early twenties. Harrison returned to historical fiction with The Binding Chair (2000), which focuses on two women, May Cohen and Alice Benjamin. May is Shanghai prostitute who has fled the confines of her stifling first marriage after being wed to a wealthy Jewish client from her brothel. Alice, May's niece by marriage, is an independent and rebellious youngster who defies her family's attempts at a traditional upbringing. The novel follows the two women through their struggles and concludes with Alice travelling to the French Riviera to become a ward of her aunt.
Critical response to Harrison's first three novels was generally favorable. Reviewing Exposure, Wendy Smith wrote, “Harrison, who even in her first book displayed exceptional artistic assurance and control, has crafted a multi-layered text. … the delineation, in superbly modulated prose, of a woman's painful, tentative journey toward self-knowledge.” Critical assessment of The Kiss has varied widely. Many reviewers panned the memoir as a publicity stunt or as Harrison's attempt to exact revenge on her mother. Jonathan Yardley referred to the book as “trash. … not an artful word in it.” Tobias Wolff entered into a spirited public debate with Yardley concerning the work and the merits of the memoir genre as a whole. Wolff complimented the courage it took Harrison to write The Kiss and commented that “[t]he truth is that they are using her as a target of convenience for their animus against the genre she's working in—the memoir.” Looking beyond the initial controversy, Joanne Kaufman hoped that “[p]erhaps The Kiss will serve as the means by which Harrison can finally exorcise her demons and begin to broaden the terrain of her fiction.” Reviewers were again divided in their response to The Binding Chair. Several critics remarked that Harrison's prose was scintillating, while others found the events depicted to be too gruesome and reminiscent of her previous works. Some commentators noted in their reviews of The Binding Chair that perhaps the mixed critical reactions to The Kiss caused Harrison to lose sight of what her readers expect from her, and thus lose faith in her own abilities as a novelist.
Thicker Than Water (novel) 1991
Exposure (novel) 1993
Poison (novel) 1995; published in England as A Thousand Orange Trees
The Kiss: A Memoir (memoir) 1997
The Binding Chair: or, A Visit from the Foot Emancipation Society (novel) 2000
(The entire section is 33 words.)
SOURCE: “Private Eye,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, February 14, 1993, pp. 3, 7.
[In the following positive review of Exposure, Passaro praises Harrison's prose, comparing it to the works of novelist and journalist Joan Didion.]
Kathryn Harrison, on the heels of her disturbing and elegiac first novel, Thicker Than Water has written a second, Exposure that plays off a newsworthy subject and creates an intense portrait of an artist's (and a father's) capacity for exploitation and betrayal.
The novel's damaged and unraveling heroine is Ann Rogers, daughter of a renowned photographer, Edgar Rogers, who made his fame with morbid, suggestive and visually stunning black and white pictures taken of her when she was a child and a blossoming teen. The similarities of Ann's situation to that of the children of the increasingly notorious photographer Sally Mann instantly suggest themselves: Mann takes beautiful and rather unnerving photos of her children—many of them, like Edgar's of Ann, elaborately posed recreations of actual domestic moments, often involving death-like postures and various bruises and wounds. Childhood sexuality recurs also as a motif. A great deal of controversy has arisen about these photos; Harrison's novel, aside from its considerable literary merits, contributes to that ongoing debate in tangential, dreamlike ways.
(The entire section is 1122 words.)
SOURCE: “Kathryn Harrison: Her Harrowing Psychological Novels Are Fiction, but Seem Vividly Real,” in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 240, No. 9, March 1, 1993, pp. 33–34.
[In the following interview, O'Connell offers a positive assessment of Exposure, and Harrison states that the events dramatized in her first novel, Thicker Than Water, are entirely fictional.]
Kathryn Harrison's critically acclaimed first novel, Thicker Than Water, was a gripping story of incest, fatal illness and emotional deprivation. Her second novel, Exposure was called “harrowing but spellbinding” in a PW boxed review (“Fiction Forecasts,” Nov. 30); the plot features methedrine abuse, compulsive shoplifting and parental neglect. When a former colleague from her days as an associate editor at Viking learned that Harrison's third novel would invoke the Spanish Inquisition and its aftermath, he wailed, “Oh, fine, another happy little book from Kathryn!”
In person Harrison, 32, is anything but bleak. Her favorite color and most of her attire may be black, but vivid purple socks break up the slender dark line of clothing from shoulder to foot. She laughs easily and talks with her hands. When she meets with PW in Brooklyn at her Park Slope brownstone, three-year-old daughter Sarah and eight-month-old son Walker contentedly share their mother's limelight....
(The entire section is 2064 words.)
SOURCE: “Shooting His Daughter,” in Washington Post Book World, Vol. 23, No. 10, March 7, 1993, p. 7.
[In the following review, Smith offers a positive assessment of Exposure, but notes that the novel misses the chance to explore the larger social issues raised by its troubled heroine's life.]
Although it opens with Ann Rogers slipping on her shoplifted green suede skirt in the back seat of a Manhattan taxi, then shows her scoring three grams of crystal methedrine from the receptionist at her successful video business, Exposure is not—thank God—a simple tale of overprivileged angst. As in her first novel, Thicker Than Water, Kathryn Harrison sets the personal story of a daughter's struggle to deal with the psychic consequences of a disturbed family life against a sharply sketched social landscape that enriches the individual drama.
A short flashback sandwiched between her taxi ride and her arrival at Visage Video shows 16-year-old Ann, for more than a decade the subject of her father's photographs, rejected as a model because her adolescent body too clearly displays the signs of adult sexuality. Edgar Roger's work (which inevitably brings to mind real-life photographer Sally Mann's controversial pictures of her children) has depicted his daughter naked, seemingly dead, scarred by marks of self-mutilation. His photographs of Ann remain so incendiary that in...
(The entire section is 806 words.)
SOURCE: “When Fiction Meets Fact,” in Women's Review of Books, Vol. 10, No. 10–11, July, 1993, p. 34.
[In the following excerpt, Goudie argues that narratives of childhood sexual abuse—such as Exposure—have social significance even when they do not succeed artistically.]
I mentioned to a colleague that I was reviewing two novels revolving around the sexual abuse of children. “Novels?” he responded, with surprise. To render this social issue in fiction would seem the ultimate challenge; Susan Palwick's first novel, Flying in Place and Kathryn Harrison's second, Exposure both illustrate its difficulty. Both suffer from being too driven by plot and pat psychology: reading the novels in tandem leaves one with the leaden sense that life is only too knowable—that it has all the mystery of a social services pamphlet.
Still, I feel uncomfortable when I criticize these two books, the first earnest but clumsy, the second a bit slick: both overexplained. I recall how I felt when I taught college composition and received themes on incest or rape in response to requests for personal narratives. In the face of such material, discussion of comma splices seemed trite, the assignment of a grade tactless. But if Flying in Place and Exposure do not quite succeed as art, they serve as evidence that women are writing and speaking of what was previously...
(The entire section is 816 words.)
SOURCE: “Love and Death, High and Low,” in Chicago Tribune Books, June 4, 1995, p. 3.
[In the following review, Dunford offers a generally positive assessment of Poison, noting that Harrison's prose is often too stylized.]
Fans of Kathryn Harrison's last novel, Exposure, a psychological study as up-to-date as the chilling Metropolitan section of the daily paper, may be surprised by Poison. Harrison has moved backward in time, some 300 years.
Poison takes place in late 17th Century Spain. Long past its Golden Age, the country is in economic and political decline; the Venetian ambassador writes home in 1690 that Spain is “a series of unending calamities.” On the throne sits Charles II, the infantile, physically and mentally damaged consequence of constant Hapsburg intermarriage. He would die childless at 35, the last of the Spanish Hapsburgs.
Relentless ethnic cleansing is taking place, 300 years since the first Grand Inquisitor, Tomas de Torquemada, persuaded their Majesties, Fernando and Isabella, that state security demanded the expulsion or conversion of Spain's Jews. The Inquisition, which had faded in other parts of Europe, was still rooting out lapsed Murranos, Moriscos, Moors, witches. Denounced people disappeared into the Inquisition's prisons, their shoes left behind as a sign.
Harrison is fascinated by...
(The entire section is 1160 words.)
SOURCE: “The Faithless Priest and the Obsessed Harlot,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, June 18, 1995, p. 8.
[In the following positive review, Hansen argues that Poison is an elegant example of well-written historical fiction—a genre that typically portrays the contrasts and similarities between a past era and the current one.]
In 1679 Marie Louise de Bourbon, the niece of Louis XIV, the Sun King, married Carlos II, the last of the Spanish Hapsburgs, in the village of Quintanapalla, Spain. She and Carlos were both 18. The princess was tall, beautiful and vivacious, fond of frolics and horseback riding; the king was short, ugly and gloomy, given to paranoia and superstitions and so many everlasting illnesses that he confined his food to bowls of breast milk supplied by a platoon of healthy wet nurses.
With Carlos infirmities and probable impotence or sexual ineptitude, it is not surprising that the regents were childless during the 10 years of their marriage, but the fault was laid on the foreign wife who became hugely disliked by a people who regularly fought wars with France. In the afterword to her novel, Kathryn Harrison notes that on Feb. 8, 1689, Maria Luisa as she was called in Spain, fell from a horse and was put to bed. “At five o'clock on the morning of February 10, she awoke feeling suffocated and suffering a severe gastrointestinal upset. Her condition...
(The entire section is 919 words.)
SOURCE: “Endless Torments,” in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4812, June 23, 1995, p. 26.
[In the following positive review of A Thousand Orange Trees (the British title for Poison), Humble notes that the novel focuses on the connection between beauty and cruelty.]
Set in seventeeth-century Spain, A Thousand Orange Trees twists together the stories of two women born on the same day, whose lives are devoured by the bloodthirsty Spanish state. Francisca de Luarca, the daughter of a Castilian silk-grower, is arrested by the Inquisition after a love affair with a priest and is tortured as a witch. Marie Louise de Bourbon, the niece of Louis XIV, is transported from her beloved Versailles to marry the childish and impotent Spanish king, and is tormented by his court when she fails to provide an heir.
The stories of both women's lives are narrated by Francisca, who has been taught to read and write—another sign of her witchcraft—by her priest-lover. In between bouts of Inquisitional torture, she waits in her prison cell, one of thousands in the “other city” hidden beneath Madrid, conjuring up memories of her past and dreams of the Queen's life. The narrative is patterned through similarities and near-connections between the two women. Francisca's mother was one of the wet-nurses who had suckled the sickly adolescent king Marie was to marry. The Spanish girl...
(The entire section is 583 words.)
SOURCE: “Fate in Frocks,” in New Statesman and Society, Vol. 8, No. 363, July 28, 1995, pp. 40–41.
[In the following excerpt, Kaveney offers a generally positive assessment of A Thousand Orange Trees.]
Kathryn Harrison's last novel dealt with kleptomania and photography in uptown New York. In A Thousand Orange Trees, her new heroines have neurosis in common with the earlier one, but are unlike her in being doomed without reprieve. Francisca bears a priest's child and ends on the racks of the Spanish Inquisition as a witch; Marie, the queen fails to produce a child and is poisoned by mother-in-law. Some centuries, women just can't win.
This may sound like Mary Daly, but is actually more like Ronald Firbank. Harrison is interested in 17th-century Spain for the frocks as much as anything—Francisca's family are failed silk growers and even the Inquisition rustle round in silk. This is a highly decorative novel, not to its disadvantage, of a society of passion, decadent luxury and colourful poverty in which the depraved, pathetic Carlos II, the Bewitched, lies curled like a worm in an apple. Francisca and Maria share a sort of flippant gaiety that makes them grand.
(The entire section is 192 words.)
SOURCE: “Incest Chic,” in Spectator, Vol. 278, No. 8800, March 29, 1997, p. 53.
[In the following review, Taki offers a negative assessment of The Kiss, and states that he doubts the truth behind the events recounted in the memoir.]
There are very few taboos left in the world—especially here in the Home of the Depraved—incest being one of them. No longer. Random House editor, Harry Evans—yes, our very own little Harry, hubby of Tina—has extolled The Kiss: A Memoir as a masterpiece, while one Phillip Lopate in Vanity Fair calls it lyrical and dry. Other slimebags have gone even further. Words such as uncanny, heartbreaking, fearless, amazing abound.
Mind you, it was bound to happen. After same-sex marriage taboos were removed by those nice guys, who think they know what's good for us small-timers, incest chic was next in line. ‘Boy, did I have a wild one last night, I've never seen Jocasta so randy. Ma and I woke up all of Thebes.’ The Kiss: A Memoir, in which the author Kathryn Harrison writes about the four-year affair she had with her father, has Big Bagel literati in a tizzy. Newsweek has called Harrison brave. I imagine in the sick mind of the Newsweek critic that the fact Harrison has a four-year-old son and a six-year-old daughter makes her even braver. We are, after all, living in the age of Clinton.
(The entire section is 664 words.)
SOURCE: “Double Exposure,” in Voice Literary Supplement, Vol. 42, No. 13, April 1, 1997, pp. 10–11.
[In the following excerpt, Lieberman offers a negative assessment of The Kiss, finding Harrison's effort an unworthy contribution to the memoir genre.]
In this era of “realness” and recovery—when our two favorite national pastimes are voyeurism and shopping for an identity—who should be surprised that the memoir has emerged as the literary genre of the '90s? While the self-exposé of the famous person is a beloved genre, what is new is the legion of “normal” people sounding their lives for a marketable hook, like guys with metal detectors scouring the beach for change.
Like indie rock, the memoir offers potential validation and exposure to a wider range of voices. But that doesn't mean there's no filter in place to weed the hypable hit from the dud; the most Oprah-friendly memoirs reveal how this “democracy” is possible in a cutthroat marketplace. At a moment when the so-called grand narratives of family, faith, and nation—the myths that supposedly made sense out of experience—are disintegrating, the memoir proposes an “aesthetic” solution to the problem of living without a tribe, which automatically gives shape and/or meaning to the events in one's life.
As with any genre in an exciting state of mutation, the memoir form has been...
(The entire section is 1390 words.)
SOURCE: “Father, We Have Sinned,” in Observer, April 13, 1997, p. 17.
[In the following interview, Harrison reacts to the critical controversy and personal attacks prompted by the publication of The Kiss.]
When Kathryn Harrison was 20, her father kissed her. He pushed his tongue inside her mouth, “wet, insistent and exploring.” And with that kiss, she says to me, she “crossed a line, like a line of fire.” She became unspeakable. Now 35, she has written an appalling memoir: “a bridge of words back to the place to which I can never return. But I didn't know that people would hate me so much for it.”
For several years, Harrison had an affair with her father (she never calls it abuse, instead she calls both father and daughter “dishonourable,” “treacherous”). He was a preacher who had been absent since she was six months old, was still desired by her mother (who also abandoned her when she was five) but was snipped out of family photographs by her grandmother, so becoming the black hole into which all her longing for love could be sucked. When they finally met, he put his tongue in her mouth and she did not resist him; several weeks later, in a dim and unbecoming room, he put his tongue between her legs while she lay as in a dream, helpless and compelled. Finally, he penetrated his daughter; she lay beneath his substantial flesh (he, the preacher, is “word made...
(The entire section is 1767 words.)
SOURCE: “The Sins of the Father,” in Spectator, Vol. 278, No. 8803, April 19, 1997, pp. 38–39.
[In the following negative review of The Kiss, Hastings applauds Harrison's courage in publishing her controversial memoir, but argues that the work is stilted and poorly written.]
The story Kathryn Harrison tells in The Kiss is so terrible that I felt guilty at being bored by it. The experience of her miserable childhood and her incestuous relationship with her father is appalling in every detail, and yet she recounts it with such portentous solemnity, in such a laboriously elevated style that I entirely failed to be moved.
When Kathryn Harrison was six months old, her parents divorced, she and her mother moving in with her grandparents. Her mother, a cold, discontented woman, was incapable of showing affection and coped with her chronic depression by spending much of the day asleep under a satin eye-mask. A little more than five years later, she leaves to live on her own in a nearby apartment, calling round regularly to see her daughter but refusing to reveal her address, unwilling to be troubled by childish illness or anxieties.
Emotionally neglected, Kathryn does badly at school, starves herself, drops out of college. Then when she is 20, her father, seen only twice during her childhood, arrives on a visit. A pastor of German extraction, he is a...
(The entire section is 656 words.)
SOURCE: “Novelist Kathryn Harrison's Memoir of Her Affair with Her Father,” in Chicago Tribune Books, April 20, 1997, p. 3.
[In the following negative review of The Kiss, Kaufman states that the distance and vagueness of Harrison's narrative voice weaken the memoir's hold on its readers.]
There are lots of really swell ways for authors to market their works these days: Concoct an elaborately clumsy piece of fiction but swear on a stack of Publishers Weeklys that it's non-fiction (check out Sleepers by Lorenzo Carcaterra). Slap between covers what is essentially non-fiction, call it fiction and credit it to Anonymous (Joe Klein's Primary Colors). Give potential customers something extra for their money by outfitting the book with a CD—it's got a good beat and you can read to it (a la Joyce Maynard and Laura Esquivel)! Or (with, perhaps, a certain amount of cynicism) put forward a memoir that traffics in the salacious and/or sensational, and become the subject of magazine and TV feature stories, in the manner of critically acclaimed novelist Kathryn Harrison.
The Kiss chronicles the affair, 16 years ago, between Harrison, then a college student, and her minister father. The product of a perfervid romance between two 17-year-olds who married in shotgun-wedding haste and divorced with dispatch, Harrison was raised mostly by her grandparents, Mom...
(The entire section is 964 words.)
SOURCE: “Devouring Love,” in New Criterion, Vol. 15, No. 9, May, 1997, pp. 64–69.
[In the following excerpt, Allen offers a negative assessment of The Kiss, suggesting that Harrison’s real motive behind writing the book was the author's hatred of her mother.]
Just what does it say about the New York literati that the book that has made the single biggest splash this season is a thin, poorly written volume, chockablock with bathos and cheap melodrama, dealing with the author's incestuous affair with her father? Magazine editors and media pundits have fallen over one another in their rush to book Kathryn Harrison and either tout or fulminate against her new memoir, The Kiss.1 A single issue of The New York Observer contained three pieces on it, including a parody; the ever-topical New Yorker made a bid to publish an excerpt in its pages. (New Yorker readers were deprived of this treat when Random House pushed The Kiss's publication inconveniently forward.) Kathryn Harrison and her husband, Colin, a writer and editor, have eagerly encouraged the feeding frenzy, Kathryn by giving soulful interviews and striking sexy poses in the mags, Colin by writing a ludicrously solemn exclusive for that serious, sensitive publication Vogue on his relationship with his wife and how her sordid past has affected—no, enriched—their marriage....
(The entire section is 1769 words.)
SOURCE: “Blaming the Victim,” in Women's Review of Books, Vol. 14, No. 10–11, July, 1997, pp. 33–34.
[In the following essay, Alther discusses the critical reaction to The Kiss and how it has changed the perception of the memoir genre, particularly as practiced by women.]
The Kiss is a disturbing and moving memoir about Kathryn Harrison's four-year love affair with her father, which began when she was twenty. In spare, flat prose that mirrors her numb state of mind at the time, Harrison documents the dynamics of the deadly triangle consisting of herself, her remote mother and her frantic father, who was ejected from the household by his domineering parents-in-law when Kathryn was six months old.
Harrison's mother moved out when she was six, leaving the child in the care of these grandparents. Harrison saw her father only twice before she was twenty. She grew up harboring like a fatal virus a hunger for parental acceptance and a rage at having been abandoned. These emotions play themselves out in her tortured entanglement with her father, who had by then remarried and become a minister in a distant town.
As a child, Harrison stood over her mother by the hour, watching her sleep: “I make any noise I can that might rouse my mother but that can't be judged as a direct and purposeful assault on the fortress of her sleeping. Because for as long as my...
(The entire section is 1506 words.)
SOURCE: “How Was It for Me?” in New Statesman, Vol. 126, No. 4347, August 15, 1997, pp. 44–45.
[In the following review, Moore offers a mixed assessment of The Kiss, arguing that a memoir can only be effective if the reader is persuaded to feel a connection with the author.]
The subject that obsesses us at the end of this long century is subjectivity itself. “How was it for me?” we continually ask ourselves. Such navel-gazing could be attributed to the fragmentation of modern life, the end of ideology, the collapse of the grand narratives or any postmodern, premillennial panic that you care to theorise. We cannot know or be certain of anything outside ourselves; it is all just too confusing. As the grand narratives shatter into millions of smaller ones, all crying “me, me, me,” myriad voices whisper: “I may not be a novelist but I know what I'm like.”
This belief in the subject as the only viable subject, the self as both author and authored, is not a purely literary phenomenon. Television likes authored documentaries in which quirky presenters give their entirely personal views. The art world likes self-revelatory bad girls such as Tracy Emin and Sam Taylor Wood; newspapers are brimming with the “new solipsists” who write of nothing but themselves, or just of nothing; music loves its self-made stars such as Liam Gallagher, who acted like a pop star long...
(The entire section is 737 words.)
SOURCE: “The Awful Truth,” in New York Review of Books, Vol. 44, No. 14, September 25, 1997, pp. 13–15.
[In the following excerpt, Halpern compares specific passages from Thicker Than Water and The Kiss, noting the similarities in the subject material.]
The response to Kathryn Harrison's memoir, The Kiss … illustrates how one's expectation defines one's reception—how what a book is called determines how the reader reads it. The Kiss, as everyone knows by now, is about Harrison's four-year affair with her father, a pastor, which began when the author was twenty. The book is written in a cool, hypnotic monotone, as if the writer were unattached to the events she records (and therefore not culpable). “We spend our nights in motels not so much sordid as depressing. Sordid has a style and swagger these places lack, rooms with curtains cut from the same orange fabric as the bedspread, ceilings of plaster textured like cottage cheese,” she writes. And, in the book's most sexually explicit passage:
… He lifts the hem of my nightgown. He doesn't speak, and neither do I. Nor do I make any attempt to stay his hands. Beneath the nightgown I am wearing no underpants, and he opens my legs and puts his tongue between them. … What he does feels neither good nor bad.
The writing is so painstakingly flat...
(The entire section is 1428 words.)
SOURCE: “Shoeless in Shanghai,” in Times Literary Review, No. 5067, May 12, 2000, p. 21.
[In the following review, Scurr offers a negative assessment of The Binding Chair and suggests that The Kiss was an unfortunate turning point for the worse in Harrison’s career.]
Kathryn Harrison had published three novels before The Kiss (1997), a memoir about her incestuous affair with her father, brought her notoriety. She was admired for breaking “the last taboo.” But she was also suspected of attempting to catapult a decent but unremarkable novelistic career into a more glamorous stratosphere. Grounds for this suspicion could have been located in the fact that Harrison's first novel, Thicker Than Water (1991), had a plot strikingly similar to her later memoir. The uncharitable interpretation of The Kiss is much more interesting retrospectively than it was in 1997, when it seemed mean-minded and cynical. Harrison's new novel, The Binding Chair, recounts the life of a victim of Chinese foot-binding, a Shanghai prostitute who marries an Australian client in 1899 and ends up on the French Riviera in time for the Jazz Age. It compares unfavourably with Harrison's earlier historically inspired novel Poison (1995, published in the UK as A Thousand Orange Trees,) and suggests not only that she is an irritatingly sensationalist writer, but that The...
(The entire section is 831 words.)
Argiri, Laura. “Mass Historia.” Village Voice 40, No. 20 (16 May 1995): 82, 84.
Argiri offers a positive assessment of Poison, praising Harrison's sensuous prose and historical accuracy.
Bush, Trudy. “Putting a Life in Order.” Christian Century 114, No. 17 (21 May 1997): 519–23.
Bush offers a negative assessment of The Kiss.
Chisholm, Anne. “Honey under the Silk.” Observer (25 June 1995): 16.
Chisholm offers a negative assessment of A Thousand Orange Trees, arguing that the novel lacks emotional impact.
Crossen, Cynthia. “Know Thy Father.” Wall Street Journal CCXXIX, No. 43 (4 March 1997): A16.
Crossen offers a negative assessment of The Kiss.
Dickstein, Mindi. “A Woman Trapped in Her Father's Photos.” Chicago Tribune Books (21 February 1993): 5, 11.
Dickstein commends Harrison's use of multiple narrative forms—first and third person passages, court transcripts, and letters—to tell the story in Exposure.
Emerson, Sally. “Sins of the Fathers.” Washington Post Book World 21, No. 23 (9 June 1991): 11.
Emerson offers a positive assessment of Thicker Than Water, praising Harrison's attention to...
(The entire section is 536 words.)