A Lady Cyclist's Guide to Kashgar, By Suzanne Johnson

A tale of quirky women who operate outside the mainstream

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The Independent Culture

The title may suggest a work of non-fiction, and its chapters are headed by snippets from a real-life guide, but Suzanne Joinson's stylish debut is actually fiction of the literary time-slip variety.

In 1923, Evangeline (Eva) English, devoted lady cyclist, arrives in Kashgar, an ancient city on the old Silk Road, with her artistic sister Lizzie. They're to help establish a Christian mission under the eye of Lizzie's mentor, a Hatamen-cigarette-smoking spinster named Millicent. Eva's true motives are some way off spiritual; she's really there to keep an eye on mentally frail Lizzie, and to work on the eponymous travel book. The unconventional daughter of English liberal upper-middle-class parents, it's with these particular sensibilities that Eva describes their travails in politically unstable, rigidly Mohammaden Kashgar. One is not invited to expect happy endings.

Entwined with this historical tale runs a narrative of present-day London. It begins one evening when a young woman named Frieda opens the door of her flat to find a strange man sleeping in the stairway. In the morning he has gone, but he's left behind an exquisite drawing of an exotic bird and some words in Arabic. He returns the next day, and she learns his name, Tayeb; also that he's an illegal immigrant, a film-maker, who has fled the Yemen. Fortunately, she has somewhere he can shelter, for she's just been requested to clear out the council flat of a woman who's died, one Irene Guy. Frieda has never heard of Irene before, but has been listed as next-of-kin. Together, Frieda and Tayeb sort through the wonderful melée of Irene's effects, which includes a starving pet owl.

Eva's notebook, unearthed in Irene's apartment, will supply the link between the two narratives, but it's spotting the common themes that yields up the greatest pleasures for the reader. Joinson specialises in quirky women – and quirky men – loners, who can't settle to marriage and family, but operate outside the mainstream, usually with chaotic results. Eva's sister Lizzie is a singular example. Dominated by mannish, fanatical Millicent, her photographer's eye allows her to channel her mystical spirituality into ethereal art. Frieda's fiercely guarded independence is the legacy of being abandoned as a child by her hippy mother. At the novel's heart is an orphaned newborn girl whom Eva adopts in Kashgar, and whom one imagines growing up unsure of where she belongs.

The exotic locales, the busy range of interests on display – cycling, ornithography, photography, Yoga – throw up a rich array of ideas and imagery to enchant and inform. However, it's a charming dilettantism that's on offer here, like the superficial impressions gained by an English lady traveller. One senses that all this may be as the author intended.

In service to all this, Joinson's possesses a touching, joyful quality that somehow suits the fragile, elusive nature of her characters. Its downside is to allow the author to shy away from issues of real emotional depth. Considering the sombre nature of some of the subject matter – abandonment and violent death – this can perhaps be a dereliction.

Rachel Hore's latest novel, 'A Gathering Storm', is published by Simon & Schuster

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