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Book of the year : A Lady Cyclist’s Guide To Kashgar - Suzanne Joinson

A 10-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.” 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 Lizzie and that bony-fingered, baby-catching missionary, Millicent. 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, multiethnic Silk Road trading post in the northwest 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 center

Ten pages into A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar, Joinson introduces a second set of characters. The time is now present-day, and the location is London. The narrator this time is Frieda Blakemore, a young woman just home from a working trip to the East and looking to have a reunion with her roguish married lover, Nathaniel. That reunion falls away, but Tayeb, a mysterious Arab man, turns up outside her door, and additional modern adventures begin

Frieda rides a red bicycle, and Nathaniel operates a bicycle shop. These details might suggest a connection to the Eva narrative and the so-called cycling guide, but don’t be fooled. The connections between the two narratives are more hidden than that

Joinson, who has herself traveled 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 filmmaker who has been hounded out of his country for writing obscenities in classical calligraphy. In a frowsty bed-and-breakfast by the cold English sea, he draws a delicate Arabian ostrich feather on her spine with bamboo calligraphy sticks

Through Frieda and Eva and their companions, Joinson explores notions of freedom, rootlessness, dislocation — any writer’s reliable arsenal. But she makes these themes her own. Eventually, the women’s stories converge, though their connection isn’t revealed until much later. On the final page, a caged owl hoots at Frieda because it thinks she is its mate. Frieda hoots back

In the end, Eva’s journal unites the two narratives, as do numerous references to birds and setting out for a new horizon. Birds provide a theme that helps to unite the book. Biking is compared to flying. As such, it can bring you close to heaven

A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar is no light adventure. The characters are well-delineated and original. They die almost routinely, and those who survive are not always the strongest or the most worthy. It’s an engaging story, though, both serious and mysterious and a worthy choice for our Book of the year

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