How delicious—a novel you want to eat. That’s the way I feel about Suzanne Joinson’s travel adventure of lost souls, A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar. I confess I had to check the location of Kashgar, on the Silk Road in western China and not so far from Kirgizatan, an area historically influenced by Mogul and Muslim cultures. Half of the novel is set there during the 1920s, the other half in contemporary London, though both are concerned with travelers, people who have sought out alien cultures, not always for the most exemplary reasons.
Because of the two time frames, the novel has two stunning beginnings. In the first, three young women (ostensibly British missionaries) approaching Kashgar (in what was then East Turkestan), hear a noise at the side of the road and discover a young girl who looks no more than ten or twelve, trying to deliver her baby. Evangeline (“Eve”), the narrator of the story convinces her younger sister, Lizzie, and their companion, Millicent, that they need to assist the poor girl. After observing her more closely, Millicent determines that the baby is breeched and they’ll need the forceps they’ve brought along in their medical kit.
The baby is saved but the mother dies—all these activities observed by locals, who offered no help to the struggling young mother. Rather, they express their rage at the three British women, accusing them of killing the mother in childbirth. “They say we have taken the girl to give ourselves strength, and that we plan to steal the baby and eat it.” Millicent tries to explain why they assisted in delivering the baby, offering the bystanders the baby, but no one wants it. Instead, the crowd becomes menacing, yelling that the English women should be killed. Such is their arrival in Kashgar.
The opening of the second story is less dramatic but just as memorable. Frieda, a young woman who specializes in Muslim cultures and works for a think tank, returns from Central Asia to her apartment in London. She believes that someone followed her into the building, and when she looks through the peep hole in her door later that night, she observes a man sitting on the floor, his back against the wall, apparently sleeping. Taking sympathy on him, she gets a blanket and a pillow, opens the door and hands them to him, quickly closing the door afterwards. In the morning, she discovers the blanket folded up with the pillow on top of it. “On the wall next to her door was a large drawing of a bird: long beak, peculiar legs and a feathery tail. It was not a bird she could identify, some words in Arabic but also in English: ‘As the great poet says you are afflicted / like me, with a bird’s journey.’” The man is nowhere visible.
What Joinson does so imaginatively is slowly pull these two incidents together in a complex story, bridging the activities and the careers of three English women early the twentieth century and one at the beginning of the twenty-first, contrasting the differing attitudes toward Muslim cultures during these two eras. Kashgar, though part of China, was dominated by Muslims during the time when Eve and her companions ended up there full of beliefs of cultural and religious superiority that are bound to get them into trouble. They are placed under house arrest and await trial for murdering the woman who died in childbirth. Eve, we quickly learn, has no intention of proselytizing like Lizzie and Millicent. She’s come along to protect her younger sister whom she believes is under the sway of Millicent’s religious fervor.
Once the incident with childbirth occurs, Eve does everything that she can to try to break the unhealthy dominance Millicent has over her sister. Ironically, the two of them leave the baby, a girl, for Eve to take care of. It is Eve, as the articulate narrator, who hopes to write a travel account of their adventures along the Silk Road. Hence, the title of Joinson’s novel. The problem is that all hell breaks loose. The Chinese and the Muslims begin fighting for control of Kashgar. The mission funding the three young women gets wind of Millicent’s aggressive conversion tactics and expunges her, refusing to come to her defense.
Frieda’s tolerance of other religions and cultures is worlds away from Millicent’s (or even Lizzie’s for that matter). The young man who slept outside her door one night reappears because he’d accidentally left his pen with the blanket and pillow. Turns out that he’s from Yemen, was once a student who has way overstayed his visa in England, and been accused of vandalism because of the rather exquisite drawings he’s left on public buildings.
What I have described are incidents that mostly occur in the opening pages of Joinson’s magical novel. The interweaving of the two unfolding plots, with the addition of background details for these and other characters, is deftly handled. Joinson contrasts differing attitudes towards gender—especially for single women in alien situations—with careful aplomb. The parallel stories, which might have been brought together too patly, are woven into a slowly unfolding mystery full of its own enchantments and revelations, including ornithology. But these surprises you need to discover by your own reading of A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar. You’ll be pleasantly surprised and rewarded by Joinson’s rich narrative and find it impossible to put down. The illustrations are enchanting.
Suzanne Joinson: A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar
Bloomsbury, 384 pp., $27.50
Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University in Washington, D.C. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.