Haunting and quite lovely (4 stars)
Source- personal copy
Published 1st March 2013 by Bloomsbury, UK
Paperback edition- 370 pages
With its interweaving themes of motherhood, religion and infidelity, I wasn’t so sure that this novel would appeal to me- especially the religious content. I actually picked it up as I’m trying to broaden my cultural horizons by reading books set in faraway places and wanted to know a bit more about Kashgar and its past. The premise for this sounded quirky and now that I’ve finished it, I’m really glad I gave it a go. This was a wonderful debut from an author I hope to see more of in future, though looking at some of its other reviews, it is clear it is a novel that divides people. Whilst admittedly a little light on imparting the historical information, this novel had a really wonderful sense of place and for me, was worth reading it for that reason alone.
In 1923, missionary sisters Evangeline (Eva) and her sister Lizzie are heading along the ancient Silk Road to the city of Kashgar, accompanied by Millicent Frost a fellow missionary, committed to saving all the souls she can. Whilst Millicent and Lizzie remain full of fanatical, religious zeal and are determined to bring Christianity to this Moslem country, by contrast adventurous Eva has her own reasons for being there, namely a green bicycle and a commission from a book publisher… Events soon spiral out of control however, and when the trio are arrested for murder soon after their arrival, a clash of cultures soon escalates.
Meanwhile, in present day London, a young woman, Frieda, finds a homeless man sleeping outside her front door. After providing him with some bedding and a pillow, the next day she wakens to find an exquisite drawing and some delicate Arabic writing on her wall. She befriends Tayeb, this stranger from the Yemen, and when Frieda unexpectedly inherits an apartment from Irene Day, a deceased woman she has never heard of, together she and Tayeb embark on an unexpected journey together.
A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar is an incredibly sensory novel, rich in sights, sounds, smells and tastes and was such a pleasure to read. Infact, I whizzed through it. As the three women arrive in Kashgar after an arduous journey, they are subjected to a melting pot of languages, religions and vibrant cultural traditions which I really enjoyed reading about. There was a slightly icky aspect at the beginning though, with a particularly graphic childbirth scene which I do think deserves some kind of SPOILER warning… (again, down to personal taste but I found it pretty grim)!
Usually I struggle a bit with dual timeframes too, much favouring one time period than the other and feeling that the time allocated to each is not evenly balanced. Though that was again the case here-in that I found Eva’s story to be the far more fascinating one- I do think the author did a good job in keeping Frieda’s contemporary storyline interesting, though it was obvious from the outset how she and Irene Day would be connected and at times her story felt more like a diversion than any real kind of plot. Predictability aspect aside, I think that introducing Tayeb as a character in the more modern setting added depth and I liked the interaction between he and Frieda; he lifted the storyline with his beautiful drawings and interest in calligraphy and film-making. I wanted to know more about him and his troubled past growing up in the Yemen.
In terms of characters, as I’ve said, I really enjoyed getting to know Evangeline, her sister Lizzie and religious zealot, Millicent. Eva sounded adventurous as well as loyal and was a standout protagonist for me. Millicent was something of a pantomime villain, overshadowing Lizzie who was hiding some secrets of her own and was written to be quite a weak, impressionable individual. I did enjoy disliking Millicent though! In the present day setting, I feel as if the reader should have been somewhat predisposed to dislike Frieda, given her circumstances, yet I actually found her quite intriguing. Like Eva she has lived a fascinating life with an enviable career. She was flawed and yet once she met Tayeb and you found out about her past, the reasons for her behaviour became apparent.
At times poignant, at times unexpectedly dark, I think my only real criticism with this book is its ending. For me, it just didn’t feel wrapped up particularly well and left a couple of unanswered questions, especially as I was waiting for the two stories to converge for so long. I wanted to know more than what was offered, though I think this is possibly down to my propensity of always wanting a ‘happy ending…!’ Sometimes I do like stories to be wrapped up with a neat little bow, but here it didn’t really seem especially fleshed out, which was somewhat disappointing.
That aside, this was certainly a wonderful, light introduction to a place I am keen to know more about. I would definitely like to read more books about Kashgar and would pick up more work from Suzanne Joinson, too. This was a really strong debut.