Sunday, September 9, 2012

A Lady Cyclist's Guide to Kashgar

Another debut novel, another winner. It seems like 2012 has been a good year for first timers. What do you think? The latest in this series of good reads for me is A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar by Suzanne Joinson. 

The action in A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar is set in 1923 and involves sisters Eva and Lizzie. They are on their way to do mission work in the Chinese governed, Muslim city of Kashgar. Lizzie despite her frailness is the zealot on this trip although she does have other passions. Eva, who has brought along her prized bicycle, is looking for adventure and a possible book contract for a travel guide. The third wheel on this journey is Millicent Frost. She is the expert, the one who is going to see them to Silk Road city of Kashgar.

There is also a contemporary side to the novel. Joinson has divided the action between the missionaries and the story of Frieda in present day London. ---Let’s take a full stop here for a moment. When have you ever read a novel that toggles between a historical setting and a contemporary one where the author manages to keep them both of equal interest? Does the word never come to mind? There must have been at least one or two books over the years that I have read that used that device and the Miss Modern Times part has been equal to the historical portion but I cannot for the life of me think of them.

Frieda is a professional expert on Islamic youth and little else. She is questioning her relationship with a married man, helping a homeless filmmaker get on his feet and inheriting things from some mysterious person she seems to have no connection with. Taybo is the homeless man. He is a refugee from Yemen whose visa has expired.

The locales, the period details and the politics in Lady Cyclist’s are all layered in with a casual simplicity that creeps up on you. No beating you over the head with research here. (Yipee!) The excellent characterizations in Lady Cyclist’s are successful fed by these details and the plot. Eva, Lizzie, Millicent and Frieda are all carefully drawn. Their very interesting quirks and their search for themselves all come about naturally but don’t assume that equates to a See Dick and Jane kind of obviousness. Joinson uses her talent to let you bring all of these particulars together and discover for yourself the depths of the idividuals and the relationships.

Can Frieda’s search for the reasons behind an unknown benefactor’s gift, the wonderfully interesting inventory of the inheritance, her relationship with Taybo and her everyday living problems really compete with the story of  three white women who take off in 1923 searching for all different freedoms in an unstable country? The answer is a surprising yes.  Hats off to Joinson for pulling that off! In The Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar she has married skillful writing with an emotionally and historically rich story about independence, abandonment and love.

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