I was initially intrigued by the subject matter of A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar, a lovely debut novel written by Suzanne Joinson.* The story alternates between two times and places – 1923 Kashgar and present day London – and follows two young women whose lives are vaguely connected, though you don’t find out how until maybe a quarter of the way through the novel.
Eva, from whose perspective the 1923 portion of the story is told, is a young woman posing as a missionary both to accompany her sister on an expedition to Asia and to gather material for a travel guide she hopes to write. Her sister Lizzie has become taken with Millicent, the elder, leader missionary, whose methods of conversion involve latching on to a woman’s secret unhappiness in order to manipulate them into separating from their current way of life and joining the evangelical mission. On their journey, the stumble upon a young girl about to give birth. Though they try deliver the baby safely, the too-young mother dies, and the local people accuse Millicent of murder. They are taken to Kashgar and put on a sort of indefinite, somewhat loose house arrest.
In present day London, Frieda, an academic scholar whose work involves much travel to Muslim areas to work on her research, has returned from her latest expedition to realize she’s completely dissatisfied with her life, both her career and her relationship with a drunkard married man who appears to have no redeeming qualities (making one question why on earth she ever bothered with him to begin with – purely for the physical relationship seems to be the answer). Tayeb, a Yemeni in London illegally after his travel visa ended years ago, has been found out by the authorities and is trying to avoid deportation back to Yemen where he would most likely be jailed or killed. Frieda receives a strange death notice in the mail, and the story takes off from there.
To be fair, it took quite a while for this book to pick up for me – possibly until a quarter or a third of the way through. The 1923 thread was fairly intriguing right away, but the journal-style read a little awkwardly for a while. The present day bit, following Frieda and Tayeb who form an unlikely bond in an almost too unlikely way, took a little too long to explain what was going on and why we should be interested. But right about the time the connection between the two stories becomes clear, the stories both really seem to hit their stride.
Through Eva, we learn a little about Kashgar, a formerly Buddhist town in western China that had become mostly Muslim. It is one of the towns on the Silk Road, and during this time period attacks are beginning in the region. She’s brought her bicycle along and occasionally manages to ride around town, and it later becomes crucial to her survival. Frieda discovers more about her past than she ever thought to ask. Both women in the process come into their own and realize important qualities about their characters.
The bicycle remains in the background of much of the story, symbolizing both responsibility and freedom. The book is interspersed with bicycle guidance, a touchpoint of recurring themes:
What the Bicycle Does: Mounted on a wheel, you feel at one the keenest sense of responsibility. You are there to do as you will within reasonable limits; you are continually called upon to judge and to determine points that before have not needed your consideration, and consequently you become alert, active, quick-sighted and keenly alive, as well to the rights of others as to what is due yourself.
Though the novel did start off slowly for me, and had a few elements of unbelievability, it turned out to be a thoroughly enjoyable read. I generally enjoy novels that give a glimpse of other cultures, and this one lives up to that. It is also a refreshing story about women in that it does not revolve around men or their relationship to men, but rather their relationship with each other, with their families, and with themselves.