A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar by Suzanne Joinson

5th Jul 2012

A Lady Cyclist's Guide to Kashgar by Suzanne Joinson

Suzanne Joinson’s debut novel, A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar, is a dual-narrative tale which explores several broad themes, such as motherhood, belonging and religion, with rich language and intricate descriptions.

The novel opens in 1923, with Evangeline (Eva) English describing how she, her intensely spiritual sister Elizabeth (Lizzie) and their mission leader Millicent came to be under house arrest.

Whilst travelling through the desert, on the Silk Route, towards Kashgar, Millicent delivered the baby of a young girl. The mother died and the locals immediately called for the English women’s arrest as murderers.

The real extent of the danger that the missionaries are in is never really stated, but it is enough that they are placed in the house of a wealthy Muslim until the money that they will use to bribe the officials arrives from England. They are considered too unlucky to be allowed into the house of a Chinese official.

Eva is given the job of looking after the baby, Ai-Lien, and becomes increasingly attached to her young charge, eventually thinking of her as her own child

The baby and her diary, kept to help her write her book, are the only things which keep Eva calm, and distract her from thinking about Lizzie and Millicent, whose relationship confuses and worries her, especially Millicent’s power over her impressionable sister’s mind.

The present day narrative is told in the third person and follows Frieda, an expert in ‘Islamic Youth Culture’.

She is in the process of mourning the imminent end of an affair when she finds a stranger asleep on her doorstep. In the morning he is gone, leaving only a beautiful drawing of a bird on the wall.

Frieda then finds out that she has inherited a house from a woman that she’s never heard of. Intrigued, she agrees to go and clear out her house, where she finds a bundle of letters, a diary and, most excellently, a grumpy owl.

Joinson spent two years researching female missionaries of the early twentieth century, in addition to specialising in the literature of China and the Middle East, and it shows. The atmosphere and sense of place within Eva’s narrative is tangible but not overwhelming.

One of the ways the dual narrative was most successful was when looking at motherhood within the novel. Frieda’s mother left her and her father when Frieda was a child and now lives in a commune, having taken a vow of silence. Compared to Eva’s strong feelings towards the baby that she ‘rescued’ from the desert, the contrast is clear but is thankfully not overwrought.

The two narratives are almost equal in length but Eva’s felt far more involving. Frieda and Tayeb, the artist on the run from immigration officials, are an engaging pair, but once I had seen the link between the two narratives I found myself speeding through the present day story so that I could return to Kashgar.

There has been a lot of hype about this book and I think that it is, largely, justified. Published today by Bloomsbury, you can buy the hardback for £7.27 or the Kindle edition for £6.91.

We’ve got five copies to give away! Want to be in it to win it? All you need to do is comment on this post by 6pm on Thursday 12th July to telling us the name of the baby Eva looks after in the book, and the winners will be picked at random.

Rating: 4/5

Recommended for: Anyone who likes stories of dysfunctional families, unclear motives or exotic historical travel.

Other recommended reading: For another tale of missionaries, try Barbara Kingsolver’s modern classic, The Poisonwood Bible.

Sarah Chapman