Book review: A Lady Cyclist’s Guide To Kashgar by Suzanne Joinson
A ten-year-old Turkic girl is giving birth in the dust, screaming “loud enough to kill trees”. Happening past, a bony-fingered missionary dismounts from her horse, tips back her head “so that her eyeglasses retreated along her nose” and catches the blue-red baby “like a fish”.
A Lady Cyclist’s Guide To Kashgar
By Suzanne Joinson
Bloomsbury, 384pp, £12.99
The dramatic opening of Suzanne Joinson’s thrilling and densely plotted first novel offers only a suggestion of the tumult to come.
A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar consists of two narratives, each seen from the point of view of a childless female protagonist. The first is Eva, a young woman dispatched from England in 1923 with her sister and that bony-fingered, baby-catching missionary. In the first of the book’s many revelations, we learn that Eva, who has brought her bicycle to Central Asia, is no true believer. She simply wants to “obliterate Southsea”, the stultifying coastal town where she and her family have been living, and she has a contract with a publisher to write a guide to bicycling in the region.
As the novel opens, the three women are on their way to Kashgar, a shimmering, multi-ethnic Silk Road trading post in the north-west corner of China, a region that nestles up against what are now Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. There the story unspools in Eva’s diary entries, scratched in the half-light of a linseed-oil lamp. As Eva pedals around the potholed alleys of the souk, Joinson summons the taste of baked figs, the sound of yellow chaffinches and the rose-petal scent of the women’s quarters, where girls slip in and out “like minnows”.
Peeping through a window of the house where the missionaries are staying, Eva makes a discovery about Millicent, the woman in charge of their little band. She “extinguished her cigarette by grinding it on the floor, and then – Lord – she pushed my sister, in a playful way, back down … so that she was flat on the kang and actually pulled her legs apart a little, and then bowed forward.”
There are no simple relationships in Joinson’s novel. Perhaps, it suggests, there are none in life. Intimacy here is governed by deceit, concealment, thwarted communication. Eva’s part of A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar is filled with incident: an aborted pregnancy, rioting, violence, death, unburied corpses pecked by birds, an epic escape along the edge of the Takla Makan Desert. Yet the “velvet-down” of an infant’s head rests at its still centre .
Eva’s story alternates with that of another young woman, Frieda, an academic researcher based in present-day London. Frieda often finds herself on the road, compiling government reports, a life described as “continual movement in circles away from herself”. When she first appears, her married lover has failed to show up at her apartment, and Frieda is pouring a bottle of wine down the sink, “watching for a moment the blood-swill of it drain away.” Like Eva, Frieda is a keen cyclist. A year or so before her mother mysteriously abandoned her as a child, “Frieda had first discovered that it was possible to run away on a bike”. When she tracks her mother to a yogic commune in the English countryside, she finds its members have taken a vow of eternal silence and had the tendons of their tongues cut. The lost mother reveals her secrets by scratching them in a notebook.
Joinson, who has herself travelled 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. “In the dull light of his shaded room, and the plum-flesh heat that was upon us,” Eva writes of a possibly shady priest in Kashgar, “my various impressions of him flickered each second so that at once he was drawn in and up, next peevish and frustrated, then out again, like a pair of bellows expanded and living.”
Disguised, secretive, clandestine: like many of the other encounters in this book, the sex is furtive. Consider, for example, this episode in the back of Frieda’s lover’s bicycle shop: “Hands up her skirt in the back room, thumb circling her, thigh pushing between her legs. A wife could come back in at any minute; the twist and tug of a nipple and Frieda, slowly kneeling in front of him, breathing on him, not looking up yet, mouth close.”
Joinson illuminates her narrative with a playfulness that borders on the Gothic, as when Frieda meets a homeless Yemeni film-maker who has been hounded out of his country for writing obscenities in classical calligraphy. In a frowsty bed-and-breakfast he draws a delicate Arabian ostrich feather on her spine with bamboo calligraphy sticks.
Joinson explores notions of freedom, rootlessness, and dislocation, making these themes her own.
• Suzanne Joinson is at the Edinburgh book festival on 23 August.
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