Book Shelf: A Lady Cyclist's Guide to Kashgar
By Brooke Lehmann
Suzanne Joinson's travels have seen her reaching the far corners of the earth- from North Africa, to the Middle East and China, to the romantically historic shores of Europe.
It is her travels and affinity for thrift shops and untold stories that embodies the English authoress' debut novel, A Lady Cyclist's Guide to Kashgar (Bloomsbury). Having already received high acclaim for her short story Laila Ahmed, Joinson revives her intrinsic imagination and experience in her new culturally transporting work.
The novel juxtaposes two contrary worlds: one in the form of Kashgar in the 1920s, and the other in modern day London. Evangeline (Eva) English finds herself a part of her sister Lizzie's mission project in the unlikely city of Kashgar, China, under their iron-fisted leader Millicent. Eva's only aim, however, is to remove herself as far as possible from the grey shores of England and to use her experiences to write her ambitious novel.
Meanwhile, in modern day London, Frieda, a somewhat unorthodoxly raised Englishwoman who studied International Relations and Politics, uses her career as a strange form of rebellion against her eccentric parents and to seek some semblance of a 'normal' life. After a chance encounter with Yemeni-born Tayeb, and a mysterious letter from the Deaths, Marriages, Births department, Frieda finds Kashgar and London colliding in a way she never expected.
Joinson's knowledge of the Arab world makes for a startling reality and the portrayed scenes often envelop the senses. Her research and experience is evident in the intricacies of the novel, however, a little disappointingly (though probably not surprisingly), the representation of Christian missionaries are more under-par than expected.
Millicent, the leader, is a bit manipulative and stubborn in her 'methods' of conversion, her goal to 'convert' people no matter what the cost. The character Eva once writes in a journal entry, "Millicent, in realising her evangelist ambition, will create the ultimate dependent. Perhaps this is her way; she thinks herself a collector of souls." At one point she tries to convert one girl by asking her if she is treated badly in her family (a fact that is quite obvious – she is depicted as the 'ugly' daughter), and continues to harp on these issues in the girl's life in order to take her away from her family.
I suppose Millicent portrays a worldly and cynical view of what a missionary is – someone who wants only to convert for the sake of their cause, rather than help, love, accept and "be Jesus" in the world. To add salt to the wound, there is the insinuation of a small bit of 'girl on girl' between Millicent and Lizzie, where fragile Lizzie is assumed to have been manipulated into the situation.
This is not to take away from the evident gift owned by Joinson (and perhaps I'm too much of an old soul for my own good), but again, I find myself confronted with some unsavoury intimacies between characters, a design that often seems to cloud the literary world today. However, aside from these casual 'bumps', it is a refreshingly new setting and is a delight to be engulfed by the sights, sounds and smells ignited by your imagination.
Eva struggles to put her journal entries into book form – how to condense all the struggles, the emotions, the experiences the relationships when you can scarcely articulate what is transpiring in your own heart and head at the time? In this sense, it is a novel that would largely appeal to those with the travel bug and a sense of adventure, but also to those who enjoy the journey of self-discovery.
A Lady Cyclist's Guide to Kashgar is a remarkably new and original work that can only inspire curiosity and desire for more from this budding novelist.