A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar, by Suzanne Joinson

This month sees the launch of a debut novel by Suzanne Joinson and I am delighted to be part of The Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar blog tour. You can see what I thought of the book below. For a chance to win a copy of the book, please visit the competition page at www.writing.ie from Thursday 12th July 2012, for full details.

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The Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar is a wonderfully exotic tale of family, faith – and feathers. From the very first lines of this magical, mystical novel, I was completely  intrigued and totally entranced. Moving between 1923 and present-day London, the novel carries two very different, and yet inter-weaving stories, which complement and never detract from each other.

In 1923, a restless, independent young English woman – Evangeline (Eva) English – and her sister Lizzie, are travelling from their dreary life in rural England to the city of Kashgar in the Far East. They are travelling as missionaries with the forceful and devout Millicent Frost, although Eva’s motives in going on the journey are more about adventure and escape than they are about faith. Being a city where no British woman has ever been, and planning to take her bicycle with her everywhere, Eva makes an agreement with an English publisher to write a travel guide to the ancient Silk Road city of Kashgar while she is there (hence the title of the novel). Finding themselves imprisoned in Kashgar as a result of an event at the very start of the novel, the story of Eva, Lizzie and Millicent’s experiences in a region which is going through a time of poitical and religious unrest, is thoroughly engaging and, at times, raw and shocking.

In a story which runs parallel to Eva’s, we meet Frieda – a young woman living in present-day London. She is estranged from her mother, having not seen her or been in contact with her for many years. But when Frieda is contacted to inform her that she is the next-of-kin to a dead woman she has never heard of and has inherited her apartment, her life begins to take some interesting twists and turns, especially when she meets a young Yemeni man, Tayeb, who she finds sleeping outside her flat and who draws intriguing graffiti of birds and Arabic script.  As Frieda tries to discover who the dead woman is, whose abandoned flat contains all sorts of strange items, an unusual friendship develops between herself and Tayeb, an illegal immigrant, which leads to other intriguing story lines in the novel.

Unique from the very outset, Suzanne Joinson has created a wonderful novel, set in an era and in a part of the world which, like Eva, few of us have probably experienced – or fully understand. For me, the stand out parts of this novel are the chapters set in Kashgar. Joinson writes beautifully, capturing the hot, dusty, alluring atmosphere of the city brilliantly. The sights, sounds and smells are all described in exquisite, evocative detail which only someone who has spent time in such places, as Joinson has, could do so authentically.

The characters in the novel are quirky, engaging and excellently developed. Eva English, in particular, is a wonderful character, drawn from a long-forgotten era of stuffy formality and when not much was expected of women generally, let alone that one would take a bicycle to a city in the Far East.

There is tragedy, danger, real human emotion and much mystery inter-twined in this novel which is unique in many, many ways. Of course, the two stories of Eva and Frieda are interlinked and although I suspected the link from quite early on in the novel, it was still fascinating to see how the stories would unfold and the impact on Frieda when she discovers who she really is.

Perhaps it’s just me, but it does seem that books are increasingly viewed as a disposable, fleeting distraction rather than as a cultural, literary treat – something to treasure and place proudly onto the bookshelf (electronic or wooden). What a joy it is then, to read such wonderful, original writing and to be transported so thoroughly to a different time and place. Thank you Ms Joinson. Thank you very much indeed!

About the author

Suzanne Joinson works in the literature department of the British Council, and regularly travels widely across the Middle East, North Africa, China and Europe. In 2007 she won the New Writing Ventures Award for Creative Non-Fiction for her story ‘Laila Ahmed’. She is studying for a PhD in Creative Writing at Goldsmiths University and lives by the sea in Sussex.

For further details see the following websites:

www.ladycyclistsguide.com

www.suzannejoinson.com

www.bloomsbury.com