A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar by Suzanne Joinson
It’s 1923. Evangeline English is accompanying her sister Lizzie as part of a Christian mission to Kashgar, in Western China on the ancient Silk Road route. Eva in turn is accompanied by her trusty bicycle. She keeps a diary about their expedition which she plans to publish on her return as a guide for lady cyclists.
The mission is led by the forceful Hatamen cigarette smoking Millicent, who with her suffragette-influenced mission style of is determined to bring some Moslem women under her umbrella, whatever the cost; and photographer Lizzie is under her spell. Things don’t start off well for them. Approaching the city, they find a woman in agony in childbirth by the side of the road. Millicent delivers the baby, but the mother dies, leading to the trio being put under house arrest for ‘murdering’ the unknown woman. The baby girl is left with them, and it falls to Eva to look after it.
Time shifts to the present day, and we are now in South London with Frieda, an independent young woman, who one day has two surprises. She has an unexpected inheritance from an old lady to whom she is listed as next of kin by the Council. She also opens her front door to find a young Yemeni man sleeping on her doorstep. Tayeb is an illegal immigrant, and has had to make himself scarce from the flat he shares as the authorities are looking for him. Frieda and Tayeb strike up a sort of friendship, and he agrees to help her sort out the flat of her unknown benefactor.
These two very different narratives twist around each other, gradually revealing Eva and Frieda’s stories, and edging slowly towards each other. There are connections, but they’re not immediately obvious which keeps the reader guessing.
Often in dual narratives one story tends to dominate – this isn’t the case here. Although initially Eva’s tale, told through her diaries, is totally absorbing due to its exotic location and the pioneering spirit of the women on their mission, the mysteries in Frieda’s life are equally compelling. Both provide adventure tinged with tragedy, be it in the desert heat or the claustrophobic isolation of South London, and I enjoyed both. A skilfully plotted and accomplished debut that made for an absorbing read. (8/10)
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A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar by Suzanne Joinson, Bloomsbury paperback, 384 pages.