Book Reviews

‘The best moments in reading are when you come across something - a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things - which you had thought special and particular to you. And now, here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out, and taken yours.’ Alan Bennett

“Many a book is like a key to unknown chambers within the castle of one’s own self.” ― Franz Kafka

Thursday, 5 July 2012

A Lady Cyclist's Guide to Kashgar - Suzanne Joinson

'Bicycles are rarely seen here, and a woman riding one is simply unimaginable.'

It is 1923, and Evangeline (Eva) English, her sister Elizabeth (Lizzie) and their companion Millicent Frost are trained missionaries who have traveled to Kashgar, East Turkestan, to spread the message of Christianity. Lizzie and Millicent are driven by their religious beliefs, whereas Eva, with her 'glorious, green BSA Lady's Roadster bicycle', has other motives for wanting to be part of the trip, capturing her experiences in writing, and hoping to write A Lady Cyclist's Guide to Kashgar and have her guide published...'and I shall sub-title it, 'How I Stole Amongst the Missionaries.' It shall be my own personal observations, filled with insights about the Moslems. I intend to spy upon the women, fascinating in their floating garb; and the landscape: these great, monotonous plains; and I shall sit upon my two wheels and feel the grit of the desert and move about the streets as if flying.' As we meet them, they have just happened upon a young girl in the desert, only 10 or 11, who is giving birth, and they help her. However, the local people are against what they have done, and they take them in whilst deciding the fate of the three women. The women hope that they can gain funds to free themselves.

The story then moves to London in the present day, and we meet Frieda as she returns home after travelling for many months, as part of her work researching the youth of the Islamic world. She discovers a man sleeping outside her door, and shows kindness towards him. The next day she finds beautiful images of birds drawn on the wall outside her home. She is in an unsatisfactory relationship with a married man. We learn that the stranger is called Tayeb, and he used to be a filmmaker in his homeland of Yemen, but is now in a difficult position due an incident that happened to him in London. Frieda inherits the contents of a flat from a lady she doesn't recall ever having known. There she discovers intriguing items from the past, and an unlikely and unexpected friendship grows between Frieda and Tayeb as they both look to their futures. Frieda has had an unusual upbringing and the inheritance she has received will cause her to revisit past times.

The author has transported us to another world, describing its exotic colours, the foods, the people, and conveying the atmosphere the women find themselves in, as two different cultures with different traditions and lifestyles come together. It was intriguing to discover how the relationships between the three women changed and developed as more of their individual personalities are revealed to the reader; Eva experiencing feelings of loneliness, and becoming increasingly distanced from Lizzie and Millicent, whose 'friendship was so thick and tight.' Of course this is all viewed through the eyes of Eva in the passages she has recorded in her journal. She ponders why she writes; 'Perhaps I write it for sense. I write it for cohesion, I suppose, to understand the progression that must occur in the layering of different selves that create a life.' The parts of the novel narrated by Eva are prefaced with wonderful short extracts from a book entitled Bicycling for Ladies, by Maria E. Ward, from 1896. 

Overall I liked this fascinating debut novel; I felt that whilst reading I was able to take a step into the past, and experience with Eva some dangerous, unfamiliar places, and felt tension as I read on, wondering what would happen to these courageous, independent women, how would their stories end? Although admittedly it took me a little while to get into the story fully at first, I grew more interested in the story involving Frieda and Tayeb as it gathered momentum, and I enjoyed Eva's journal entries more once the story had progressed a little. 

The author moves the story along nicely between the dual strands of narrative, historical and modern day, and links them cleverly together, slowly revealing the connections between Eva and Frieda, and combining to deliver an intriguing and satisfying read as a whole. If you, like me, enjoy novels with this dual time frame structure, and which combining historical and present-day stories to compelling effect, you may well enjoy this book. 

Thank you very much to Netgalley and to the publisher for the chance to read and give an honest review of an advance egalley of this novel.

Published by Bloomsbury

There's a website about the book here.

Suzanne Joinson works in the literature department of the British Council, specializing in the Middle East, North Africa, and China, and she is the Arts Council-funded writer-in-residence at Shoreham Airport in the UK. Her personal blog can be found online at, and she tweets at @suzyjoinson. Visit her Web site at

Below is a video featuring the author discussing this novel.


  1. I liked this book too, and agree with lots of your points. I did think it had a slow start but I was soon completely captivated by both stories.

  2. My feelings were very similar. A few weaknesses, but because the author so clearly knew and loved her subjects I found it easy to forgive them and fall in love with the book as a whole.


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