Lady Cyclist's Guide to Kashgar (Joinson)

A Lady Cyclist's Guide to Kashgar
Suzanne Joinson, 2012
Bloomsbury USA
384 pp.
ISBN-13: 9781608198115

It is 1923. Evangeline (Eva) English and her sister Lizzie are missionaries heading for the 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 Cyclist’s 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 a pillow, and in the morning finds 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 Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar explores the fault lines that appear when traditions from different parts of an increasingly globalized world crash into one 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 toward home. A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar marks the debut of a wonderfully talented new writer. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
In 2006 I bought a box of letters from Deptford Market in London and wrote a short story, "Laila Ahmed," about my quest to find out who they belonged to. This story won a New Writing Ventures prize which gave me a year’s mentoring and enough money to buy a laptop. All of this contributed very well to helping me finish A Lady Cyclist's Guide to Kashgar. The moral of this story is: go to flea markets! And car boots...and don’t get me started on the buried stories to be found in second hand and thrift shops.

I live in a small, Sussex coastal town with my husband and two tiny children. We have embraced its English seaside charm, the pier, the blustery promenade and best of all, the rock pools.

I work part-time organising international literature projects for the British Council. I travel widely, and over the past ten years have travelled and worked across most countries in the Middle East and in China, Russia and Western and Eastern Europe. For several years I specialised in projects focusing on the Arabic speaking world. I am interested in international literature and... well, stories from anywhere in the world that grab me.

The rest of the time I write. My next book is inspired by the Art Deco Shoreham Airport in Sussex, and is about early female pilots, inter-war London and the establishment of the British Mandate in Palestine. I combine working on this with studying for a Ph.D in Creative Writing. Writers I admire include Virginia Woolf, Elizabeth Bowen, Jean Rhys, Vladimir Nabokov, EM Forster, William Faulkner, TS Eliot, Lawrence Durrell, AS Byatt, Marilynne Robinson, Janice Galloway, Carson McCullers, Olivia Manning, Freya Stark, Graham Greene, Alice Oswald, Sinead Morrisey, H.D., Stevie Smith, Ann Quin, Sylvia Townsend Warner. (From the author's website.)

Book Reviews
The dramatic opening of Suzanne Joinson’s thrilling and densely plotted first novel offers only a suggestion of the tumult to come…. Joinson, who has herself traveled widely on behalf of the British council, controls her narrative with skill: this is an impressive debut, its prose as lucid and deep as a mountain lake. Joinson also has a gift for evoking finely calibrated shifts of feeling… [she] illuminates her narrative with a playfulness that borders on the Gothic…. Through Frieda and Eva and their companions, Joinson explores notions of freedom, rootlessness, dislocation – any writer’s reliable arsenal. But she makes these themes her own.
Sara Wheeler - New York Times Book Review

It takes less than a page for Suzanne Joinson to seize your attention…. there is so much here that is wonderful: the author’s crisp, uncluttered story-telling, her graceful prose, and her ability to inhabit the character of a young woman in 1924 and a contemporary young woman with equal depth and ease. It is an impressive first novel
Nan Goldberg - Boston Globe

Ms. Joinson layers her basic narrative with references to religious hypocrisy, cultural ignorance and sexual gamesmanship, throwing in for good measure Arabic ornithological mythology, bicycling tips for the novice female rider, and the dangers of cult worship. . . . Ms. Joinson succeeds in keeping us moving and takes us to places very far away before we reach the end of this immensely satisfying story.
Norman Powers - New York Journal of Books

Present and past meld into an exploration of conflicting traditions in an impressive debut that shifts smoothly between 1920s Turkestan and present-day England. In 1923, Evangeline (Eva) English accompanies her fragile sister, Lizzie, on a missionary trip to the ancient Chinese-ruled Muslim city of Kashgar under the supervision of the stern Millicent Frost, who suspects, accurately, that Eva, with her prized bicycle—a “glorious, green BSA Lady’s Roadster”—and passion for writing, is more interested in adventure than proselytizing. Surprisingly (and disappointingly), Eva’s story is lacking in cycling and exciting exploits. In the present day, well-traveled but stuffy researcher Frieda Blakeman is startled by the appearance of both a letter deeming her the next-of-kin of a recently deceased woman, and Tayeb, an illegal Yemeni immigrant who takes refuge outside her London apartment. Though Frieda and Tayeb’s growing bond and the unfolding revelations of the modern story are more compelling than Eva’s frustratingly limited experiences and the unpleasantly stereotyped Millicent, Joinson has created in Frieda’s unusual history and the parallel struggles of Tayeb and Eva as outsiders and observers an intriguing window into the difficulties of those who attempt to reach across cultural barriers.
Publishers Weekly

(Starred review.) "I may as well start with the bones," observes Eva, who in 1923 is traveling with sister Lizzie and officious Miss Millicent Frost to the ancient Silk Road city of Kashgar, where they will serve as missionaries. Lizzie truly has a calling, but Eva is quite literally along for the ride; she's got her bicycle and is planning to write a travelog. The bones, "scalded, sun-bleached, like tiny flutes," lead them to a young woman in the throes of childbirth, whose subsequent death results in their house arrest by hostile Moslem locals considering charges of murder. Meanwhile, in contemporary London, the somewhat disaffected Frieda, raised by commune-dwelling parents, befriends a gentle Yemeni refugee she's found sleeping on her doorstep and puzzles out why she has inherited the contents of a flat whose occupant she doesn't know. Refreshingly, the two stories are equally absorbing (not always the case), and their connection comes as both surprising and obvious. Verdict: Beautifully written in language too taut, piercing, and smartly observed to be called lyrical, this atmospheric first novel immediately engages, nicely reminding us that odd twists of fate sometimes aren't that odd. Highly recommended. —Barbara Hoffert
Library Journal

This complex and involving historical novel examines the idea of home, the consequences of exile, the connection between mother and daughter, and the power dynamics of sexual relationships.

Eva has accompanied her younger sister Lizzie, a talented photographer, and Lizzie's domineering religious mentor Millicent to Asia in 1923 without missionary zeal but in search of adventure. Traveling by bicycle, Eva keeps a notebook she hopes to turn into a book about the journey.... Shift to [present day] London and Frieda, a think-tank specialist on Islamic youth.... Slowly Frieda and Eva's connections are revealed. Each struggles to find her voice and independence despite social pressures. Each must define love for herself, even if it defies convention.... As often happens in novels that travel between past and present, the past sparkles while the present pales.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions
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Also consider these LitLovers talking points to help get a discussion started for A Lady Cyclist's Guide to Kashgar:

1. Talk about the two main characters—Eva and Frieda. In what ways are they different from one another? Are there any similarities? How do both women use cycling? How does each attempt to achieve independence? Do you find one's story more interesting than the other's? If so, which one...and why?

2. How would you describe the relationship between the two sisters, Eva and Lizzie?

3. Talk about Millicent Frost—what do you think of her? Is she a committed Christian and missionary? Is she evil? A hypocrite?

4. What about Tayeb—what do you think of him as a character? What is the significance of the bird he draws on the wall? Do his reflections enhance the story for you...or do you find them a distraction from the main storyline?

5. Millicent is held accountable for the death of the young woman who died during child birth. Talk about Millicent's actions—should she have assisted the woman? Was there a better alternative? Today, laws for helping strangers vary according to country, state or province. In some jurisdictions, a person who is uncertified in first aid can be held legally liable if mistakes are made during an attempt to assist a stranger. In other jurisdictions, laws protect people, certified or not, from liability as long as they respond in a rational manner. Research the difference between "Good Samaritan" and "Duty to Rescue" laws. What do you think of the laws?

6. Why do you think the two stories are told through different points of view—Eva's in the first person and Frieda's in the third? What is gained by the double perspective? Could Eva's story have been told in the third person rather than through journal entries? Might we, for instance, have learned more about Millicent's and Lizzie's natures using a third-person narrator? Or does the journal provide more immediacy than a third-person narrator would?

7. Talk about the different forms that love and intimacy take in this novel. Are some forms more "legitimate" than others...or does this novel suggest that all forms of intimacy are legitimate? How do you see intimacy?

8. Talk about the different religions encountered in this novel. What is the book's attitude toward religion? Does the novel see religion as a positive force...a power used to control...or what? Is there a difference between religions and the way in which they are practiced? Does the novel validate one religion over another?

9. How do both Eva and Frieda attempt to make sense of their parents' actions and/or views of love? In what way does the novel suggest that we are destined to repeat the mistakes of our parents? Do you believe most of us are so destined?

10. At what point did you figure out the identity of the mysterious dead woman? What clues lay along the way?

11. Talk about Kashgar. How would you describe the city and its culture? Is Joinson's portrayal adequate? What all is going on within the city? Do you find similarities between the events in 1923 and events in the 21st century?

12. Talk about the connection between women cyclists and the development of more comfortable women's attire.

13. What about the ending of the novel? Was it satisfying...or disappointing?

(Questions by LitLovers. Please feel free to use them online and off, with attribution. Thanks.)

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