By Suzanne Joinson. Bloomsbury. 370 pages. $26
Reviewed by Linda Rimel
LINDA RIMEL is an author and playwright.
“I unhappily report that even ‘Bicycling for Ladies’ with hints as to the art of wheeling — advice to beginners — dress — care of the bicycle — mechanics — training — exercises, etc., etc. cannot assist me in this current predicament.”
Anything could follow an opening like that. In Suzanne Joinson’s first novel, “A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar,” what follows is a compelling tale of East meets West.
One plot strand is of missionaries and a faux missionary in western China in 1923. The other is of a young, present-day British woman, Frieda, whose career requires extensive foreign travel. She has rejected the values of her counter-culture parents, praying secretly “to an actual God rather than a manifestation of sublime energy. She prayed specifically for an actual house with carpets.”
Her mother had urged her years ago, before abandoning Frieda at age 7, “Don’t call me Mum. Don’t call me Grace. I am Ananda Amrita. Divine Sister.”
Frieda is surprised to learn that she is the sole heir of an old lady whose name she doesn’t recognize. In the lady’s flat, aided by a homeless Yemeni artist whose visa has expired, she finds mementos of Kashgar, an owl, an antique Leica camera, a journal and a photograph of Frieda’s mother.
The missionaries’ experiences are chronicled by a young woman named Eva. A publisher’s interest in her writing a book with the same title as Joinson’s novel is one rationale for her traipsing off to “the least-visited place on earth.” Another is protecting her feeble sister, a gifted photographer whose religious calling had seemed to come from out of the blue. A stronger motivation is the sisters’ fascination with travelogues and birds. Off they go, led by a linguistic scholar named Millicent, who is a manipulative proselytizer.
In Kashgar, they soon find, female life is little valued. They take in a newborn girl whose life they have saved — and find themselves accused of murder. When the Inland Mission refuses to pay the bribe that would extricate them, they are indeed in a predicament. Millicent persists, against the wishes of the Inland Mission and in defiance of Islamic patriarchy, in “gossiping the Gospel,” converting a household by infiltrating its harem. The consequences are brutal.
Eva’s storyline moves toward Frieda, whose investigation into the life of the old lady retrogresses to Kashgar. Both stories explore East, West, love, birds, bicycles and a new generation’s impulse to reject its upbringing.
Particularly well-drawn is Tayeb the Yemeni, who once accused a French girlfriend of “sexual tourism.” He muses that Western women “required, and, more importantly, wanted someone to tell them what to do; someone (a man) to tell them to stop talking and worrying. It was the one thought he had that his father would approve of.”
He had so thoroughly rejected his father’s traditional expectations that his father had taken a second wife and fathered new sons to replace Tayeb. Frieda bristles at “the lies she had been told as a child, the guff about open marriage and love” and the pseudo Eastern spirituality of her parents.
Joinson interferes little, and does not preach, as Frieda and Tayeb, like Eva and the people she encounters in Kashgar, try to work out simply how to be human.
As shy Tayeb becomes increasingly part of her life, Frieda wonders what “would he think of her recent project for the think tank, ‘Belief in Conversation between the West and East,’ and how could she bring herself to admit to that title?”