At first I was irritated at the alternating scenes, very brief chapters, in A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar that shift beween present-day London and the cities and deserts of the Silk Road nearly a century ago. Frieda is an academic, ceaselessly traveling for her sociological research, compelled to keep moving, even as she grows increasingly exhausted by her life. Her married lover seems like a complete dud but there’s no accounting for taste, even in novels, and she isn’t as delighted to see him as she once was. Progress. One night a strange Yemeni immigrant (illegal) sleeps outside the door of her flat and she surprises herself by giving him a pillow and a blanket. The next morning he is gone, blanket neatly folded and the graffiti of a wondrous Arabian bird left on her wall.
Evangeline English longs to travel, feels stifled by her narrow, 1923 British life. So, when her ethereal little sister, Elizabeth (Lizzie), decides to join a lady missionary setting out to christianize the Muslims, Eva fakes a religious calling and goes along. She takes her bicycle, over protests, and a secret agreement with a London publisher to write A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar, based on her adventures and her diary.
Disaster is the first order of business. The missionaries’ travel caravan stumbles across a pile of bones next to a desert road and a very young girl about to give birth all alone. When Millicent, the domineering older missionary who has arranged the trip and seduced Lizzie into a trance-like proselytizing fervor, attempts to deliver the baby, the girl bleeds to death and the English women are placed under house arrest and threatened with a charge of murder. Eva scoops up the baby.
Meanwhile, Frieda receives a solicitor’s letter informing her that her next-of-kin, a woman she has never heard of called Irene Guy, has died and left her belongings to Frieda. She has one week to clear out the woman’s council flat. In the cluttered flat, Frieda finds a live owl in a cage and no clue to the identity of her mysterious benefactor. Tayeb, the Yemeni artist, returns–he has been busted to the immigration police and is on the run with no place to go. The owl gets loose, Tayeb bird-whispers him back into his cage and Frieda decides Tayeb can live in Irene’s apartment for a few days until he figures out what to do next.
The scenes from the Silk Road are vivid and horrifying in a dreamy sort of way. Eva tries to make sense of all she sees and is increasingly concerned for their safety as Millicent insists on alienating the Kashgar Muslims, placing herself, Eva and Lizzie in even greater danger. Lizzie is drifting away from sanity and the baby is a constant concern. They obtain a nursing cow to provide milk for the baby, visit the women’s quarters of a local chief where Millicent spies a potential convert who may be their downfall , survive a deadly sandstorm and cope with the rapid unravelling of their lives.
Tayeb finds a photograph in Irene’s flat that turns out to be Frieda’s very pregnant teenage hippie mother and she decides to find the woman who walked away from her a lifetime ago, when she was seven. As events spiral out of expectation and control in both stories, the connection between them begins to emerge. In truth, it’s very well done and I ended up really enjoying and admiring this book. A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar is packed with extremely interesting characters, cinematic detail in both eras , great wisdom about the yearning to fill in the gaps in our lives, and a perfectly satisfying resolution to Eva’s and Frieda’s adventures that is far from neat but completely credible. One of the best novels I’ve read in a while.
A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar: A Novel Suzanne Joinson | Bloomsbury 2012