Sunday, June 24, 2012

A Lady Cyclist's Guide to Kashgar by Suzanne Joinson


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The book's description from the publisher's website:

A secret notebook. An unlikely inheritance. A collision of worlds. Prepare to be swept off your feet . . .
It is 1923. Evangeline (Eva) English and her sister Lizzie are missionaries heading for China’s ancient Silk Road city of Kashgar. Though Lizzie is on fire with her religious calling, Eva’s motives are not quite as noble, but with her green bicycle and a commission from a publisher to write A Lady Cyclists Guide to Kashgar, she is ready for adventure.
In present day London, a young woman, Frieda, returns from a long trip abroad to find a man sleeping outside her front door. She gives him a blanket and pillow and in the morning discovers the bedding neatly folded and an exquisite drawing of a bird with a long feathery tail, some delicate Arabic writing, and a boat made out of a flock of seagulls on her wall. Tayeb, in flight from his Yemeni homeland, befriends Frieda and, when she learns she has inherited the contents of an apartment belonging to a dead woman she has never heard of, they embark on an unexpected journey together.
A Lady Cyclists Guide to Kashgar explores the fault lines that appear when traditions from different parts of an increasingly globalized world crash into each other. Beautifully written and peopled by a cast of unforgettable characters, the novel interweaves the stories of Frieda and Eva, gradually revealing the links between them, and the ways in which they each challenge and negotiate the restrictions of their societies as they make their hard-won way towards home.
It's really difficult for me to competently write this review, since I do feel very ambivalent about A Lady Cyclist's Guide to Kashgar, about what it was and what it could have been.

I enjoyed the two storylines almost equally. This is where Ms. Joinson serious writing skills show: creating and building up the characters that are interesting, engaging and keep the reader reading. I was especially drawn to the ones that were rather on the dark side, even though there were precious few of them. Millicent, the missionary who led Lizzie and Eva to Kashgar, turned out to be a pretty despicable creature in my eyes, mostly because of her selfishness and complete disregard for those devoted to her. However, this character alone added a lot of richness to A Lady Cyclist's Guide to Kashgar and without her the novel could have possibly turned out to be boring. To me, one of the top three factors determining the quality of a novel is the emotional aspect. A story, or even one element of it, has to evoke strong feelings within me. Both positive and negative will do. That's what happened in the case of Ms. Joinson's book and thank goodness for that. As awful as Millicent was, she added spice and dimension to A Lady Cyclist's Guide to Kashgar.

The same also applies to the present story of Frieda and Tayeb. This one had actually three deliciously despicable people (Frieda's father, mother and married lover, Nathaniel) but boy, did I hate Frieda's mother. That little number was selfishness personified. It's as if Millicent's spirit was being reborn from generation to generation until it found its perfect host. Call me opinionated and judgmental, but if a woman makes a conscious decision to become a mother, raises the child for long enough to be loved by her/him and then simply disappears forever because there are more important things for here out there, then I won't even consider wasting my time trying to understand the motives. But yet again, Frieda's mother kept me reading A Lady Cyclist's Guide to Kashgar until the end.

What exactly is the reason for devoting two paragraphs to characters only, very unlikeable ones nonetheless? It's because, sadly, everything else fell short for me. The historical aspect held a lot of promise. With the Christian first female missionaries arriving at that remote and hostile part of the world and the conflict between the Muslims, the Chinese and the missionaries (both female and male), a lot could have been happening to make A Lady Cyclist's Guide to Kashgar stand out. And again, the same applies to the modern story of the novel. The place of Muslims in today's England, the issue of child abandonment and finally the secrets we keep and how they affect our lives. None of them were explored and it's a shame.

As I was making progress with Joinson's novel, the most important issue that I couldn't stop thinking about was how much better off this author would have been, had she abandoned the idea of two storylines and two timelines packed into one book, and instead wrote two separate books. I could even see a potential for a trilogy here. Both the story of Eve and Frieda could easily stand on their own if given proper, singular focus each. So maybe, next time we'll see Suzanne Joinson putting out a fantastic story with strong female characters (I believe that's what she was going for in this book), instead of an okay novel with a potential. I hope so. There's much to like and appreciate in Joinson's writing and enough promise in it to warrant my looking forward to what we'll read from her next.

FTC: I received an e-galley of A Lady Cyclist's Guide to Kashgar by Suzanne Joinson for review from the publisher, Bloomsbury USA via NetGalley.