Suzanne Joinson’s A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar, is a novel that intertwines the lives and stories of Frieda, in modern-day London and Eva, part of a missionary group with her sister Lizzie and their companion Millicent in 1920’s Kashgar, in the western part of China.
“Why do you want to bring it?” Lizzie asked, but I don’t think I answered her. I did not tell her that it was my shield and my method of escape; or that since the first time I pedaled and felt the freedom of cycling, I’ve known that it is the closest I can get to flying.
Eva has taken her bicycle and is penning a guide to cycling which seems to interest her more than missionary activities, excerpts of which grace the beginning of each Kashgar chapter and whose meanings could be interpreted to have wider meaning than just cycling.
What the Bicycle Does: Mounted on a wheel, you feel at once the keenest sense of responsibility. You are there to do as you will within reasonable limits; you are continually called upon to judge and to determine points that before have not needed your consideration, and consequently you become alert, active, quick-sighted and keenly alive, as well to the rights of others as to what is due yourself.
Eva and her companions have travelled to the ancient Silk route city of Kashgar in the hope of converting lost souls, but seem to find only trouble, not helped by the questionable motivations of each of the individuals that make up the group. Tolerated but unwelcome, they find themselves ostracized and seen as bringing bad luck during a time of political and religious unrest.
In London Frieda lives a solitary existence, her work demanding her to travel constantly which keeps her from becoming too involved in any social sense when she is at home – that and her choice of relationship which assists in putting a halt on her progression. But two things occur that may offer not just distraction, but a divergence in her life, with which she has a growing frustration and sense of wanting to change. The arrival of a young Yemeni artist on her doorstep with skills in drawing birds like the long-tailed variety he draws on her wall and the arrival of a letter informing her of her responsibilities regarding the death of a person who has named her next of kin.
The letter prompts her to consider making contact with her mother whom she has not seen since she was seven years old and Tayeb, the young artist is able to help her decipher the Arabic script in a notebook she finds that now belongs to her. He also knows how to take care of an owl that seems to have fallen into her care.
The book wasn’t quite what I was expecting, perhaps due to the title and the mention of the Silk Road, these things are mere markers which entice our interest while the story takes us on another journey altogether, the bicycle more of a metaphor for a journey and the things one is likely to encounter and is required to consider. I enjoyed the story and in particular the contemporary story which provides the framework.
Here the birds’ journey ends, our journey, the journey of words, and after us there will be a horizon for new birds. – extract from Mahmoud Darwish’s poem ‘Here the Birds’ Journey Ends’.
Note: This book was an Advanced Reader Copy (ARC), provided by the publisher via NetGalley.