In A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar, Suzanne Joinson interweaves the stories of two women, and gradually reveals how their lives are related to each other.
On the one hand there is the story of Evangeline (Eva) English, who together with her sister Lizzie and fiercely religious Millie, travels to the ancient city Kashgar as a missionary in 1923. While Millie and Lizzie are motivated by their religious conviction, Eva has more mundane motives: she wishes to publish a “lady cyclist’s guide to Kashgar”, and has convinced the missionary society of her religious calling in order to make notes for the book.
The story of Frieda is set in present-day London. Frieda has a job in which she often has to report on the situation in Muslim countries. When she returns from one of her trips, she finds a man sleeping outside her door. In the following days, this man turns out to be an illegal immigrant from Yemen, called Tayeb, who is a talented drawer of birds and dreams of shooting his own film. When Frieda learns that she has inherited the contents of an apartment from a woman she has never met before, Tayeb en Frieda set out to discover the contents of the apartment, and the story hiding behind these objects.
I admit it was the title and the cover that sold me first. And when I learned the story featured missionaries I knew I had to read this. I know this latter detail might turn some people off reading this novel, but please believe me when I say the story extends well beyond the subject of missionary travels. As for me personally, I have always been intrigued by how mission(aries) feature in literature, and A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar did not disappoint in this respect. Nor was it the only thing that interested me about this novel. The manner in which Joinson manages to evoke a setting might have been enough in its own right.
One of the things that I particularly appreciated were the parallelisms in the ‘othering’ going on in the worlds of both protagonists (I may have done an imaginary dance for joy when I discovered this as it is one of the major reasons that mission history is of interest to me).
Eva, Lizzie, and Millie encounter their others (as in the people they are trying to convert) and voice opinions I would expect from missionaries at the time, remarking on their ‘savage’ customs and deplorable living conditions for example. In this manner, Joinson avoids becoming anachronistic in her portrayal of historical times. What makes these things less awkward for a modern reader with a more postcolonial consciousness is, I think, that in these encounters Joinson shows us how the people they meet are also ‘othering’ the missionaries in their own way. And in having Eva take up the care for a motherless baby, she becomes the more humane face of this encounter, without becoming exempt from the particular viewpoints of her time.
Similarly, in having Frieda be an advisor on the Middle East and especially the political relationship with Muslims, Joinson foregrounds the designated contemporary “other”. And she makes sure to complicate the picture. She clearly doesn’t believe in an “us vs. them” division. Frieda often reflects on the difficulties of her job: she has to report on her findings in a way that is often cast in a binary mold, but visiting these countries she understands that things aren’t as simple. In her interactions with Tayeb, these issues are explored further, and, like Eva’s care for the baby, they lend a human face to what is, in society’s eyes, one of the major “issues” of our time.
Suzanne Joinson manages to give an incredibly readable account of two complicated situations in which questions of marginalisation and power become entangled with religious affiliations. Within this framework, she pays heed to both social forces as well as individual agency. And she turns the whole thing into an interesting and convincing story. Exactly because I know how difficult to navigate these subjects are, I am a little bit in awe of how well Joinson tackles them. And I haven’t even mentioned how gender and sexuality are integral parts of the narrative, with homosexuality also playing a significant role. After finishing A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar I couldn’t help but imagine how interesting a discussion with, or reading of, Suzanne Joinson on the subject of writing this novel must be.
There were some drawbacks to A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar. I felt it was a little slow at times, and there were moments in Frieda and Tayeb’s story which left me impatient to return to Lizzie’s narrative. This may have been solely due to personal preference; to be honest it’s almost inevitable that in a novel like this I’ll be more curious about the half that focuses on missionary women around 1920. But these drawbacks are minor. Overall Suzanne Joinson offers a solid work of fiction that brings both the world of missionaries in Kashgar and contemporary London to life.