Saturday 27 April 2013

A Lady Cyclist's Guide to Kashgar by Suzanne Joinson

This is the first novel by Suzanne Joinson, an award-winning non-fiction writer, and I do hope it will not be her last. A Lady Cyclist's Guide to Kashgar chronicles the voyages of discovery for two characters. First of all there's Evangeline who has tagged along with her missionary sister, Lizzie, and her forceful missionary friend, Millicent, on their foray into Turkestan, a region nestling between Mongolia, Tibet and Russia. It is 1923 and the locals have endured a history of invasions both military and religious, and don't take kindly to the women's arrival .
    Millicent believes her Christian message will conquer all obstacles, while dreamboat Lizzie will do anything she says it seems, so long as she can have a bit of time off to take pictures with her expensive Leika. Meanwhile Eva wants to write a travel book about cycling. Having been brought up always on the move, she is happy to escape the claustrophobic atmosphere of her mother's home in England.
    When Eva and Millicent stop to help a young girl give birth, their safety in Kashgar is immediately compromised and the three women are placed under house arrest.
    Alternating chapter by chapter with Eva's story is that of present day Freida, another character who can't keep still. She gets back from an assignment in the Middle East to find a man, Tayeb, camping outside her apartment door. There's also a letter to say she has inherited the personal effects of a relative she didn't know. The estate includes a Chinese model of an opium den and torture scene under glass, some intriguing documents and an owl.
    While Eva crosses deserts, mountains and seas to get home again, Frieda's journey is into the past. Who is this mystery relative, Irene Guy, and how do you look after an owl? As it turns out, Tayeb, a Yemeni overstayer, can help with the owl, but she'll have to track down her hippie mother, who left home when Frieda was seven, to find out about Irene.
     Joinson builds her characters carefully with depth and understanding in such a way that you yearn for what's best for them. Eva's journey becomes, not surprisingly, one of self-discovery - she seems to have led a sheltered life and learns not only how to take care of a baby, but to come to terms with a new culture and relationships between the sexes. Frieda learns to stop and take a good look at her past, particularly her childhood and the legacy of having hippie parents. She also sees in a new light her current unsatisfactory relationship with married bike shop owner Nathaniel.
    Both Frieda and Eva end up in difficult places from which, like Tayeb, they must extricate themselves. This gives the novel plenty of drama - Eva faces physical danger, Frieda has emotional damage to deal with, while Tayeb, with neither home nor job, faces extradition. The novel is beautifully paced too, so that it tempts you on, with the shifts in narrator, and you stay reading into the night just to see what is around the corner for each of the characters. This makes the book, for me, the best kind of page-turner. I hope we'll see more from Suzanne Joinson.

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