This is a review of the book A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar, by Suzanne Joinson. The novel follows the story of a female missionary in Kashgar in 1923, interwoven with a thirty-something woman’s search for self in present-day London.
I found this a fascinating read. Both stories hooked me in quite early, though I confess I found the story of present-day Frieda slightly more engaging. This is very likely because it was more relatable to a woman of similar age living in the same period, but it doesn’t make Evangeline, the writer-come-missionary, any less interesting. It was interesting to see how two quite disparate tales could have so many things in common, and it was quite some time before I made the connection of how they could possibly be joined into one story.
The amount of research that must have gone into this novel is staggering. To have the level of detail present in 1920s Kashgar (and elsewhere on the Silk Road) that’s given is incredible, but it doesn’t go to waste – the picture painted of the desert city ninety years ago, and the attitudes and behaviour of its inhabitants, gives a really vivid impression of what it must have been like. Evangeline’s mix of naiveté and worldliness is also fascinating, but totally believable given her background; things which seem obvious to a 21st century reader are a mystery to her, but there is also a keen understanding of human nature which shines through and helps give her her strength.
Equally, Frieda’s story is full of vivid details that make it come alive and her adventures with Tayeb, the Yemeni refugee who she finds sleeping in her doorway one night, are symptomatic of someone who is still trying to find her way in life. I loved her confusion at inheriting the possessions of Irene Guy, an old woman she’s never heard of, and her attempts at working out the connection between them and of looking after the owl she finds in Irene Guy’s flat.
If there is anything that didn’t quite work for me, it is probably the myriad of minor characters who sprinkle both tales. Because the Kashgar and London stories are told in alternate chapters, they don’t flow as smoothly as they could and sometimes I had to find myself flicking back a chapter or three to work out who Evangeline (or Frieda) was referring to and what their role was. Once I had that sorted out, though, I had little trouble following either woman’s journey.
Overall, it is an epic tale of self discovery, happening over two centuries in two different continents. Both women learn a lot about their place in the worlds along the way, and both women eventually find themselves in situations in which, for once, they feel comfortable, their stories becoming inextricably interwoven along the way. If you like reading well-written, touching stories about adventurous women in very different circumstances, this book is for you.