the UK hardback edition
A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar by British writer Suzanne Joinson was one of the most intriguing debut novels of 2012. Published by Bloomsbury in the UK and US, the ambitious novel interweaves two main storylines, one set in 1920s Eastern Turkestan (today’s Xinjiang Muslim-majority autonomous region of north west China), the other in modern-day London. The seemingly separate storylines gradually converge as personal histories and secrets are revealed. There is a poetic quality to Joinson's prose, and she captures place, atmosphere and character with skill. The two storylines are engaging and take the reader on unusual journeys.
The novel was launched with considerable fanfare and received many highly favourable reviews on both sides of the Atlantic. It made the LA Times bestsellers’ list and National Geographic Traveler Magazine chose it as its book of the month. It was also nominated for the Anobii First Book Award. The Sayle Literary Agency is promoting the film rights.
The novel was published in November in Spain by Roca, in a Spanish translation done by Santiago Del Rey, as Guia de Kashgar Para Damas Ciclistas. Language rights have also been sold in Brazil, France, Germany, Holland, Italy, Denmark, Portugal and Serbia. Bloomsbury’s joint venture with the Qatar Foundation, Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing (BQFP), has the Arabic rights.
UK paperback edition
Now Bloomsbury is to release A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar in paperback in the UK and US, on 13 March and 20 April respectively. The cover designs of the UK and US 2012 hardbacks differ from each other, and the paperback editions have two new designs. The design on the UK hardback (pictured at top) is particularly striking: a colourful ostrich feather motif sweeps round the front, spine and back of the book against a deep cobalt blue background. Along the spine of the feather are features of the London and Kashgar skylines, reflecting the novel’s dual setting. A woman in 1920s dress rides a model of bike from that era towards the edge of the front cover.
US hardback edition
The US hardback cover emphasises the novel's Eastern Turkestan angle, with the traveller and her bicycle portrayed in a desert landscape against a snowy mountainous background. The UK paperback shows in silhouette a woman cyclist wheeling her bike near a lake, with mountains beyond. (On her hazardous journey Eva passes through the Tien Shan Celestial Mountains, and sees the famous freshwater lake Baghrasch kol ). The US paperback cover, with the woman character seen from behind holding a notebook and pen, stresses the fact that the lady cyclist is writing a Guide on her travels.
US paperback edition
The two storylines of A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar are presented in alternate chapters. The 1920s storyline takes the form of diary entries by bicycling enthusiast Evangeline (Eva) English who has travelled to the Silk Road city of Kashgar as part of a Christian missionary delegation. Her travel companions are her sister Lizzie and the dominant Millicent Frost. It was under Millicent's influence that Lizzie discovered she has a "calling". Eva does not guess at the true nature of the relationship between Lizzie and the mannish Millicent until she is shocked to glimpse them in an intimate position. Unlike Millicent and Lizzie, Eva is fired not so much by missionary zeal as by the prospect of bicycling to faraway places and writing a Guide on her travels. She already has a publisher lined up.
The Eva chapters of the novel are each headed “Notes for A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar”. She is travelling on a “glorious green BSA Lady’s Roadster bicycle” and at the top of each of her chapters is a quote from Maria E Ward’s groundbreaking 1896 book Bicycling for Ladies.
The second storyline, written in the third person, focuses largely on Frieda. Like Eva she is writing a work based on her travels in the East – in Frieda’s case she is interviewing the youth of the Islamic world in order to write a report for a European-funded think tank with a secret name. Frieda has visited 15 countries in seven months to research her report. But she feels a fraud, despite her fellowship, her PhD and her government-sponsored paper The Youth of the Islamic World.
Joinson, who works part-time organising international literature projects for the British Council, has herself travelled widely. For several years she specialised in projects focusing on the Arabic speaking world. Over the past decade she has visited most countries in the Middle East, as well as China, Russia and countries in Western and Eastern Europe.
When Joinson visited Kashgar in July 2009 there was trouble between Uighur Muslim communities and Han Chinese. She managed to tour the city and to take photographs of the old quarters, which would not have changed greatly since Eva's visit in 1923. But she had to leave the city at short notice for safety reasons. In the acknowledgements in her novel she mentions "the anonymous Chinese girl who helped me to leave Xinjiang province when riots flared up in Urumqi and Kashgar."
The novel starts with a memorable and harrowing scene as the three women approach Kashgar. Lizzie, a keen photographer, is lagging behind on horseback with her Leica camera in order to photograph sand, believing "she can capture sight of Him in the grains and dunes." Eva and Millicent come across a a girl of only 10 or 11 "a belly as ripe as a Hami melon" who is about to give birth and is in a desperate situation. Millicent rises to the occasion, delivering the baby with the help of her forceps. But the young mother dies.
Far from Millicent’s intervention being appreciated as an act of compassion, the missionary women are accused by the crowd of killing the mother and stealing her heart to protect themselves from sandstorms, and of planning to take and eat her baby. When they arrive in Kashgar they find they face trial on charges of murder and witchcraft. They are put under virtual house arrest first in an inn, hosted by Mohammed who turns out to have three wives, and then in Pavilion House.
It is a time of religious and ethnic conflicts in the area, and Eva, Lizzie and Millicent are caught up in a disastrous train of events. Millicent's strident Christian evangelism - “smell it, the rancid smell of these wasteful lost souls” she shouts out as she visits a Kashgar market - and her converting to Christianity one of Mohammed's daughters exacerbates their problems.
Frieda's storyline begins with her returning to London from a five-week trip for her research on young Muslims. She has been waited all evening in her flat on the Peabody Estate in Pimlico for Nathaniel, her married lover of five years. But he has failed to show up. In the small hours Frieda muses that “lighting the scented candles had been a mistake: now the room smelled like a synthetic pine forest.” She pours the bottle of wine she had opened down the sink.
the Peabody Estate in Pimlico where Frieda lives
Frieda notices a mysterious coughing man sleeping outside the door of her flat and leaves a blanket and pillow for him. The next day finds she has left on the wall a large drawing of a bird and words of poetry in Arabic and English. The man is Tayeb, a Yemeni in his 40s who overstayed his student visa 15 years earlier and has lived as an illegal ever since. But he has been betrayed to the British immigration authorities and is now on the run. He is an artist, calligrapher and former filmmaker who had made a documentary film in Yemen which the censors saw as anti-Yemeni. They demanded more than a thousand changes. Tayeb dissociates himself from the Yemeni immigrant community.
Among the mail awaiting Frieda on her return to London is an official letter from a Council in south east London informing her that as the "next-of-kin" of the recently-deceased Mrs Irene Guy she has a week to clear out the dead woman’s flat. Frieda has no idea who Irene Guy is. Nor is it easy for Frieda to try to find out through her parents who Irene Guy might be. Frieda is the daughter of hippyish parents whose belief in open marriage did not work out in practice, and she long ago lost touch with the mother who abandoned her. She has only a distant relationship with her father and when she phones him to try to find out where her mother is he tells her that the last he heard was that she was living on a commune in the county of Sussex on the south English coast.
The contents of Irene Guy's flat includes an owl in a cage. Tayeb, whose father reared birds in Yemen, helps Frieda capture the owl when it escapes after Frieda takes it to her own flat. Birds recur in a variety of contexts throughout the novel. The book's two epigraphs are a translation of Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish's Here the Birds’ Journey Ends, and lines from Ecclesiastes: “A bird of the air shall carry the voice, and that which hath wings shall tell the matter.” Each of the Frieda chapters is headed by an illustration of a different feather.
The novel's two storylines have various points of resonance. There are similarites between the two female main protagonists. Like Eva, Frieda is fond of cycling, and she uses her bike to get around London. The two women are independent, adventurous and curious about the world. But both have a sense of aloneness, of being out of kilter with wider society. Neither has succeeded in establishing a stable relationship with a man, both are seeking a way of transcending their situation. Same-sex relationships play a part in both storylines, from the 1920s covert gay scene - of which Eva is dawningly aware - to cruising in contemporary London. The pernicious effects of blinkered religious belief are seen in both storylines - whether certain types of Christian evangelism, Islamist extremism or guru-centred New Age religions.
Kashgar old city
Neither main character is wholly sympathetic. In order to help her capture the tone of Eva's voice, Joinson read archives of missionary diaries. By today's standards, some of Eva's reactions and opinions are almost racist. Frieda comes across initially as rather passive, especially in her relationship with her married lover. But the events set in train by her investigation of the contents of Irene Guy's flat and her growing friendship with Tayeb, offer her a chance to moving onto a more fulfilling path and to try to resolve some issues within her family.
Joinson’s first literary success came with the story Laila Ahmed, which was inspired by her purchase in 2006 of a box of letters from Deptford Market in London. Laila Ahmed tells of her quest to find out who the letters had belonged to. The story won the 2007 creative non-fiction New Writing Ventures prize. This gave Joinson a year’s mentoring and enough money to buy a laptop, thereby helping her to finish A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar.
Joinson still works two days a week at the British Council, and "in theory" writes on the other three days. She is also studying for a PhD in Creative Writing at Goldsmiths College, London University. She juggles her job and her writing with being mother to two young children. “I have no social life and I don’t watch any TV, and I can just about fit everything in,” she has said.
In November she was a contributor to the Lonely Planet's anthology Better than Fiction: True Travel Tales from Great Fiction Writers , edited by Don George, with pieces by 32 writers including DCB Pierre, MJ Hyland, Isabel Allende and Jan Morris.
a First World War Sopwith Camel pictured on Suzanne Joinson's Shoreham Airport blog
She has been writer in residence at Shoreham Airport on the Sussex coast, writing a blog, The Flying Machine, on the experience. “My next book is inspired by the Art Deco Shoreham Airport in Sussex, and is about early female pilots, inter-war London and the establishment of the British Mandate in Palestine," she says.
Joinson lives by the sea in Sussex, and was recently asked by Cycling Active to design a Lady Cyclist's Guide to Shoreham, published as a four-page article incorporating an interview with the novelist. Joinson described her own passion for cycling. When,weary of London's buses and trains, she started bicycling instead "it literally revolutionised my life, and the city transformed completely. Suddenly I was liberated from London’s transport system, and I had this incredibly different knowledge of London… It felt like I suddenly owned the city; somehow I had got it under control.”
Joinson has established herself as an original and refreshing literary talent with A Lady Cyclist's Guide to Kashgar. Her readers are waiting expectantly to see what she weaves from her new themes of mandate Palestine, pioneering women pilots, and 1920s and 1930s London.
by Susannah Tarbush