A quick rundown… Two parallel narratives – Lizzy is held in Kashgar in 1923, while Frieda’s path crosses with that of Tayeb in contemporary London.
Strengths: Both stories are really interesting and have you repeatedly saying ‘just one more chapter’.
Weaknesses: Too short! I wasn’t ready for this one to end.
Why I read it: Sent to me by Bloomsbury ANZ – thank you!
Setting: Primarily Kashgar and London
Rating: 8.5 out of 10
A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar should not be discounted once you’ve read the title even if you’re not a lady, not a cyclist, nor know where Kashgar is. (It’s in the far west of China, near Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan). This book doesn’t really contain much about cycling (only a few references to a bicycle), nor is it a travel guide. It’s a lovely story with two parallel narratives running. How are they linked? You’ll probably guess that before the characters do, but it’s a charming read of the twists and turns life takes across the ages.
The first character we meet is Evangeline (Eva), who has almost arrived in Kashgar on a missionary journey with her sister Lizzie and Lizzie’s friend Millicent. They try to help a young woman giving birth, but the woman dies and they become imprisoned in Kashgar. Help is not forthcoming. During the long hot days and nights, Eva writes her book/diary – ‘A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar’.
In present day London, Frieda returns from yet another trip to the Middle East to find her married lover has left her in the lurch (again) and Tayeb, a refugee from Yemen, outside. When she gives him a blanket, a friendship starts up and they join forces to find the mysterious Irene Guy, who Frieda is listed the next of kin for.
I really enjoyed this book – I can’t say I was overly sure where Kashgar was or knew much about it (except that it’s likely that Michael Palin’s been there!) Eva’s insights into the culture of the Turkish and the Chinese communities were fascinating, and the reactions to the Christian missionaries were also surprising (especially for the fate of one character). Joinson also managed to evoke the dry dusty heat and parched horizons very well – Kashgar was just as I’d pictured it when I looked it up online.
I also had a giggle at the research Frieda does in her quest to find out who Irene Guy is. Joinson must have done a similar search herself, because one of the Irene Guys listed (real name is a slight variant) works very close to my former workplace! I’d love to know if she knew she was listed in a book, which I find awesome!
The characters, particularly Tayeb and Lizzie, all had particular quirks which differentiated them in the book. Lizzie is rarely seen without her Leica and Tayeb enjoys drawing birds and writing quotes on public walls (in fact, this gets him in quite a bit of trouble)! Millicent is somewhat of an enigma; I couldn’t work out exactly what she was up to, but I got a reasonable idea.
My only criticism of this book is that is wrapped up just a little too quickly and neatly. I would have loved to read some more about Frieda’s mother and her ‘cult’, her relationship with Tayeb and just a bit more about Irene Guy.
This book is fascinating – a departure from the norm of literary fiction which is truly original. Definitely worth a read – it would be perfect to distract you on a long journey or for a cozy day of reading.