The story opens just outside Kashgar, (Western China) in 1923. The opening is toe-curlingly painful to read as an eleven year old girl, clearly too young to give birth, dies in labour. Throughout A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar, Joinson does not shy away from the gruesome. Everything from abortion in the 1920s’, to Tayeb’s experiences as an illegal immigrant from Yemen, to the (nauseating) extremities that people in cults will go to to obtain ‘enlightenment’ are examined.
The book alternates between Eva’s ‘missionary work’ in Kashgar in 1923. In reality this is house arrest as she and her companions are charged with murdering the girl who died while in labour. Eva’s life is even more complicated as she is hiding from the other 2 missionaries that she is actually there to write a travel guide for a London publisher. She cares for the baby in an increasingly claustrophobic atmosophere, isolated by her lack of shared faith with the other two women (one of whom is her sister) as well as the fact that she doesn’t speak the language, so doesn’t know what is going on.
The other narrative strand (which took more time to really come into its own but contains a more objective view of Orientalism and introduces an Other voice at times) is set in present day London.
Each of the narratives is skilfully woven together. On goodreads, a couple of reviewers who didn’t finish the book said that they didn’t see how the two women’s stories could be linked but this becomes clear after the first few chapters.
If you’re feeling a bit disorientated by the changes in time and location, stick with it as it is well worth it!
This book offers a nuanced portrayal of different characters and cultures. Tayeb, although seemingly Westernised and sensitive is shown near the end to believe that “[w]estern women wanted someone to tell them what to do.” It challenges the reader to consider the concepts of motherhood, fanaticism and one’s place in the world.
This is one of the best first novels I have read in an age and cannot wait to see Joinson develop and write more!