I didn’t care where Kashgar was.
I had ridden my bicycle to B&N–I ride my bike almost everywhere—and was drawn as much by the beautiful cover as the cycling.
This, I decided, would be my first book of the summer.
“Kashgar? Where’s Kashgar?” my husband wanted to know. Uh…Maybe it’s in China, maybe it’s in Russia. Turns out it is now a city in the western part of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of the People’s Republic of China.
The novel is divided into three linked narratives: a diary written in 1923 by Evangeline, who is is traveling with missionaries in Turkestan and has brought her bicycle; a narrative set in present-day London about Frieda, a young woman who has a research job that requires travel to cities where Arabic is spoken and who has had a longterm affair with a married man; and the story of Tayeb, a Yemen refugee who has lived pretty much underground in England for 15 years, and who is on the run from police because of his graffiti art.
At the beginning of each of Eva’s chapters is an epigraph from Maria E. Ward’s Bicycling for Ladies, a guidebook published in 1896. But the quotes have little to do with Eva’s diary entries. Eva has traveled to Turkestan with her sister, Lizzie, a photographer, and Millicent, a fanatical missionary. Before Eva leaves England, she serendipitously gets an assignment from a publisher to write a lady’s guide to cycling. But we rarely see Eva cycling–she pushes her bike a lot.
Joiner’s writing is charming, but the plot contrivance that drives the book initially put me off: when the three travelers emerge from the desert, they find a young girl in labor. Millicent delivers the baby, and when the girl dies, she is accused of murder. The three are put under house arrest in Kashgar, and live in a beautiful house on the edge of the city.
Millicent insists that they keep the baby. It seemed highly unlikely, but I read on. Joinson gradually develops the characters, and I grew to love Eva, who writes her journal, takes care of the baby, and tries to protect her sister from Millicent’s dangerous promulgation of Christian pamphlets. The Muslim men rage against Millicent.
The modern-day narrative seems more believable and is more enjoyable. Frieda’s married lover stands her up her first night home from a traumatic trip, and she finds the immigrant Tayeb camping outside her apartment. She gives him a blanket, and in the morning he leaves a beautiful illustration on her wall.
And the friendship between them grows: when Frieda receives a letter saying she has inherited the possessions of Irene Guy, a woman she has never heard of, she has a week to clear the house out. It provides a place for Tayeb to stay, as they try to figure out who Irene was.
After 50 pages I was completely absorbed in this entertaining novel, which is a kind of Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society with cycling. The novel is not perfect–it’s a first novel, and it takes Joinson a while to develop the connections between the stories–but I was hooked.
Very enjoyable–great summer reading–but don’t expect a classic.