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It is 1923. Evangeline (Eva) English and her sister Lizzie are heading for the ancient city of Kashgar on the Silk Road, to help establish a Christian mission. Lizzie, on fire with her religious calling and traveling with her new Leica camera, is in awe of their charismatic and imperturbable leader, Millicent. Eva's motives for signing on to the missionary life are not quite as noble, but with her glorious green bicycle to ride on, and a commission to write A Lady Cyclist's ...
It is 1923. Evangeline (Eva) English and her sister Lizzie are heading for the ancient city of Kashgar on the Silk Road, to help establish a Christian mission. Lizzie, on fire with her religious calling and traveling with her new Leica camera, is in awe of their charismatic and imperturbable leader, Millicent. Eva's motives for signing on to the missionary life are not quite as noble, but with her glorious green bicycle to ride on, and a commission to write A Lady Cyclist's Guide to Kashgar in her suitcase, she is ready for adventure.
In present day London, a young woman, Frieda, returns from a long trip abroad to find a man sleeping outside her front door. She gives him a blanket and pillow and in the morning finds the bedding neatly folded and a beautiful drawing of a bird with a long feathery tail, some beautiful Arabic writing, and a boat made out of a flock of seagulls on her wall. Tayeb, in flight from his Yemeni homeland, befriends Frieda and, when she learns she has inherited the contents of an apartment belonging to a dead woman she has never heard of, they embark on an unexpected journey together.
A Lady Cyclist's Guide to Kashgar explores the fault lines that appear when traditions from different parts of an increasingly globalized world crash into each other. Beautifully written and peopled by a cast of unforgettable characters (not to mention an owl), the novel interweaves the stories of Frieda and Eva, gradually revealing the links between them, and the ways in which they each challenge and negotiate the restrictions of their societies as they make their hard won way towards home.
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A Lady Cyclist's Guide to Kashgar – Notes
Kashgar, Eastern Turkestan. May 1st, 1923
I unhappily report that even Bicycling for Ladies with hints as to the art of wheeling – advice to beginners – dress – care of the bicycle – mechanics – training – exercises, etc., etc. cannot assist me in this current predicament: we find ourselves in a situation.
I may as well begin with the bones.
They were scalded, sun-bleached, like tiny flutes and I called out to the carter to stop. It was early evening; anxious to reach our destination we had travelled, in the English fashion, through the hottest part of the day. They were bird bones, piled in front of a tamarisk tree and I suppose my fate could be read from the pattern they made in the dust, if I only knew how to see it.
This was when I heard the cry. An unholy noise, coming from behind a gathering of dead poplar trunks whose presence did nothing to alleviate the desolate nature of this particular desert plain. I climbed down, looking behind me for Millicent and my sister, Elizabeth, but could see neither. Millicent prefers horseback to carts, it is easier for her to stop at will to smoke a Hatamen cigarette.
For five hours our path had descended through a dusty basin, its lowest part dotted with tamarisk trees emerging from mounds of blown soil and sand that had accumulated around their roots; and then, these dead poplars.
Twisted stems of grey-barked saksaul clustered between the trunks, and behind this bracken was a girl on her knees, hunched forward and making an extraordinary noise, much like a bray. In no hurry, the carter joined me and together we stood watching her, he chewing on his splinter of wood – insolent and sly like all of his type – saying nothing. She looked up at us then. She was about ten or eleven years old with a belly as ripe as a Hami melon. The carter simply stared and before I could speak she fell forward, her face on to the ground, mouth open as if to eat the dust and continued her unnerving groans. Behind me I heard the crack of Millicent's horse's hooves on the loose-stoned pathway.
'She's about to give birth,' I said, guessing.
Millicent, our appointed leader, representative of the Missionary Order of the Steadfast Face – our benefactress – took an age to extract herself from the saddle. Hours of travelling had evidently stiffened her. Insects vibrated around us, drawn out by the slackening heat. I watched Millicent. Nothing could be a more incongruous sight in the desert than she, gracelessly dismounting, with her dominant nose cutting the air, and a large ruby ring on her hand at odds with the rest of her mannish dress.
'So young, just a child.'
Millicent bent down and whispered to the girl in Turki. Whatever she said provoked a shout and then came terrible sobs.
'It's happening. We'll need forceps I think.'
Millicent instructed the carter to bring forward the supply cart and began fumbling through our possessions, looking for the medical kit. As she did I saw that a group of women, men and children – a large family perhaps – were coming along the track towards us, pointing and nudging each other with astonishment at us foreign devils with hair like pig straw, standing as real as anything on their path. Millicent looked up at them, then used her preacher voice:
'Stay back and give us room, please.'
Clearly shocked at her accurate words, repeated in both Chinese and Turki, they arranged themselves as if positioning for a photograph, only hushing when the girl in the dust leaned forward on hands and knees and screamed loud enough to kill trees.
'Eva, support her, quickly.'
The crying child, whose swollen stomach was an abomination, looked to me like a dribbling wildcat and I did not want to touch her. None the less, kneeling in the dust in front of her, I pulled her head on to my knees and attempted to stroke her. I heard Millicent ask an elderly woman for help but the hag shrank away, as if contact with us would contaminate her. The wretched girl's face buried against my legs, I felt a wetness from her mouth, possibly she tried to bite but then abruptly she heaved away, back on to the ground. Millicent wrestled with her, turning her over on to her back. The girl let out pitiful cries.
'Hold the head,' Millicent said. I tried to hold her still as Millicent opened her knees and pushed them down with her elbows. The material around her groin came off easily.
My sister still had not arrived. She too prefers to travel by horseback so that she can go at whim into the desert to 'photograph sand'. She believes that she can capture sight of Him in the grains and dunes. The burning sand will become a pool, the thirsty ground bubbling springs. In the haunts where jackals once lay, grass and reeds and papyrus will grow ... These and other words she sings in the peculiar high voice she has acquired since being fully possessed with the forces of religion. I looked round for her, but it was futile.
I can still hear those screams now, a hideous anguished noise, as Millicent pushed her finger into flesh, creating a space for the forceps until a combination of blood and some other liquid came out, streaking her wrist.
'We should not do this,' I said. 'Let's move her into the town instead, there must be someone more experienced than us.'
'No time. All merciful Christ look upon us and preserve us,' Millicent did not look at me, 'thy servants, from fear and evil spirits, which hope to destroy the work of Thy hands.'
Forceps pushed in and a scream that was white-pitched murder.
'Lord, alleviate the hardships of our pregnancy,' Millicent said, tugging, pulling as she incanted, 'and grant us the strength and fortitude to give birth and enable this with Thine all-powerful help.'
'We should not do this,' I repeated. The girl's hair was damp and her eyes were panic-filled, like a horse in a thunderstorm. Millicent tipped her own head back so that her eye-glasses retreated along her nose. Then, with a quick movement, as if pulling up an anchor, a blue-red creature came slithering out along with a great swill of watery substance and was caught, like a fish, in Millicent's hands. Blood from the young mother quickly formed a red crescent in the dust. Millicent put her knife to the umbilical cord.
Lizzie came then, Leica camera in hand, wearing our uniform of black satin trousers covered with a dark-blue silk skirt and a black Chinese cotton over-coat. Her skirt hem was blotted with the pink dust that engulfs everything here. She stood, staring at the scene before her like a lost girl at the edge of a fairground.
'Lizzie, get water.'
Millicent's knife separated for ever the baby from its mother who shuddered, her head lolling back as the fish-baby loudly demanded to be let into heaven. The crescent continued to grow.
'She's losing too much blood,' Millicent said. The girl's face had turned to the side; she no longer struggled.
'What can we do?'
Millicent began a soft prayer that I could not hear very well beneath the cries of the baby.
'We should move her, find help,' I said, but Millicent did not respond. I watched her lift the mother's hand. She shook her head, did not look up at me.
I spoke uselessly, but I could not believe it: a life disappeared in front of us, down into the desert cracks, as simple as a shift in the clouds. Immediately, there was uproar from our gaping spectators.
'What are they saying Lizzie?' I shouted. Blood kept coming from between her legs, a hopeful tide looking for a shore. Lizzie stared at the red tracks on Millicent's wrist.
'They are saying we have killed this girl,' she said, 'and that we have stolen her heart to protect ourselves from the sandstorms.'
'What?' The faces in the crowd dared to come close to me, rushing against me, placing their hands with black nails on me. I pushed the hands away.
'They say we have taken the girl to give ourselves strength, and that we plan to steal the baby and eat it.' Lizzie spoke quickly, in that odd, high voice. Her ability with this impenetrable Turki language is much better than mine.
'She died in childbirth, natural causes, as you can all very well see,' Millicent shouted uselessly in English, and then repeated it in Turki. Lizzie set about bringing water in our tankards and a blanket.
'They are demanding that we are shot.'
'Nonsense.' Millicent took the blanket from Lizzie and they stood together; a lady and her handmaiden.
'Now, who', Millicent held the screeching baby high up as if it were a severed head, an offering, 'will take this baby?'
There was not a sound from the disbelieving faces watching her.
'Who is responsible for this baby girl? Is there a relative?'
I knew already. No one wanted her. None of that crowd even looked at the girl in the dust, just a child herself, or at the blood becoming earth. Insects walked on her legs already. Lizzie held the blanket out and Millicent wrapped the furious, wailing scrap of bone and skin into a bundle. Without saying anything she handed it to me.
We were then 'escorted' by the family elder and his son to Kashgar's city gates where, through whatever magical form of communication, notice of our arrival had already been received. The Magistrates' Court was open, despite it being early evening, and a Chinese official brought in, because, although this is a Moslem–Turkic area, it is ruled by the Chinese. Our carts were searched through, our possessions examined. They took my bicycle from the back of the cart and it, as well as us I suppose, attracted a large crowd. Bicycles are rarely seen here, and a woman riding one is simply unimaginable.
Millicent explained: 'We are missionaries, entirely peaceful. We came upon the young mother as we approached your city.' Then, 'Sit as still as the Buddha,' she whispered. 'Indifference is best in situations like these.'
The baby's skull was a curious hot thing in my hand, not soft, but neither hard; a padded shell filled with new blood. This was the first time I had ever held a baby so new, and a baby girl. I wrapped her in the blanket, tight, and held her against me in an effort to soothe the angry fists and the purple-red face of a raging soul howling with indignation and terror. Eventually, she swooned into an exhausted sleep. I checked her every moment, fearful that she would die. We struggled to sit as still as we could. There were murmurs and discussions in the fast local dialect. Millicent and Lizzie hissed at me:
'Cover your hair.'
I quickly adjusted my scarf. Like my mother's, my hair is a terrible, bright red, and in this region it seems to be a sensation. Along the last stage of our journey from Osh to Kashgar in particular men stared with open mouths as if I were naked, as if I were cavorting before them with wings on my back and silver rings in my nose. In the villages children ran towards me, pointing, then moved backwards as though scared until I was done with it and covered my head with a scarf like a Mohammedan. This worked, but it had fallen off during the scuffle in the dust.
Millicent translated: due to the accusations of the witnesses we were to undergo a trial, charged with murder and witchcraft (or the summoning of devils). Or rather, Millicent was. She was the one who had held the baby aloft and had used her knife on the girl.
'We will have to bribe our way out of this,' Millicent whispered, her face was as hard as the sun-charred desert earth.
'We will give you the money,' Millicent said, her voice quiet, but clear, 'though we have to send a message to our supporters in Shanghai and Moscow, which will take some days.'
'You will be our guests,' the official responded. 'Our great city of Kashi is pleasured to host you.'
We are, therefore, forced to remain in this pink, dusty basin. Not under 'house-arrest' exactly, though as we must have permission to leave the house, I confess I fail to see the difference.
Excerpted from A Lady Cyclist's Guide to Kashgar by Suzanne Joinson Copyright © 2012 by Suzanne Joinson. Excerpted by permission of BLOOMSBURY. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Barnes and Noble Essay — 12 May 2012
Me and My Bicycle
Writing a novel takes a long time: manuscript and life twist around each other like a wisteria trunk on an ancient arbor. I circled the idea of writing A Lady Cyclist's Guide to Kashgar while doing a creative writing MA at Goldsmiths, University of London. English missionaries, I thought, deserts, China, camels...You have to be kidding.
Halfway through the course I got married and spent my honeymoon driving around New Mexico, Texas, and Arizona. We stopped off at a curious-looking bookshop/art gallery in a place called Van Horn. It was a very meta-experience. This was the small town of all the cowboy films and American road movies I'd ever seen. I was after a copy of Edward Abbey's Desert Solitaire and the bookshop owner-who introduced himself as Ran Horn of Van Horn-went out back to get me his own personal copy to sell.
I read it as we covered miles of Texan desert and it was during this magical, slightly unreal journey that I came across this quote: "A man on foot, on horseback or on a bicycle will see more, feel more, enjoy more in one mile than the motorized tourists can in a hundred miles." Although it was quite a leap from reading Abbey in Texas to missionaries in China, something connected and the bicycle was the link. A voice in my head said: "Go for it."
This was my first taste of what I now (pretentiously) call the Apophenia Zone, or an attack of the apophenics. This is the part of the novel-writing process in which the whole world-everything read, seen, spoken, thought, wanted, or wished-is connected and meaningful to the book. Messages and stories come from all directions, each detail insisting on its relevance and inclusion. During this time I found a manual from 1896 called Bicycling for Ladies. I remembered the 1920s and '30s travel writing I'd been obsessed with a few years earlier. Each drawing in my sketchbook, each pigeon flying past the window, and each turn of my own pedal as I cycled through London dripped its essence into the novel.
Eighteen months later: I am sitting in the Special Collection basement of the School of Oriental and African Studies in London and I am eight-and-a-half months pregnant. In front of me are letters, diaries, and journals. The manic apophenics are replaced with calm historical research and I am trying to answer a question: Why did women missionaries choose to travel so far from home?
It is rich material. After World War I, with so many men gone, the viable alternatives to marriage for single women were few. There was a surge in applications to the missions and when new recruits arrived in Peking or Sinkiang they were confronted with huge city walls built to keep desert storms out; with houses that appeared to be inward-looking, with no external windows; with closed gardens and unimaginably confusing souqs and bazaars. In the midst of this exotic strangeness the missionaries shed European clothes and with them the modes of behaviours and restrictive social codes of home. They carved out radical, even revolutionary, lives.
Down in the basement, though, I am still trying to find a trapdoor in that will open up my story. I am looking for a pathway that will lead me towards the necessary architecture of my own novel which grows ever bigger. It is weighed down by too many ghost-words. With a kick in the stomach and a rush of heartburn, the idea comes to me: a baby, into one of these houses of childless, husbandless women, and the overwhelming emotions that come with the responsibility of doing everything in one's power to not lose such a creature.
When my son was one year old I knew there was nothing for it, I had to visit Kashgar. On the plane I wrote and rewrote a passage in my notebook, wrestling with a knotty plot problem. I needed my character to escape from a city with a baby in a bicycle basket, but was this feasible? I was worried. I was a lot more worried, however, when I arrived in Kashgar. In nearby Urumqi a riot was occurring. Muslim Uyghurs were uprising against Chinese authorities, and the tensions had spread to Kashgar. The entire region was in lock-down: no internet, no international calls out, and soldiers everywhere. When I did speak to my husband (he could call in) the line clicked: we were being listened to.
Alone in that hotel room I unwillingly became my character. She lived in the 1920s, sure, but I knew how it felt to be stranded in an ancient city, unable to comprehend the complex wars that were occurring outside. To calm myself I read a book I'd brought with me and was relieved to discover that when Lawrence Durrell and his wife Nancy fled Greece (in 1941, fleeing the Nazis) they carried their three month old daughter Pinkie in a pannier basket "like a loaf of bread." That, at least, was possible.
There was a knock on the door; it was a serious looking Chinese official. He informed me that foreign journalists had been requested to leave. I told him that I was not a journalist. He peered into my room where an open laptop, a notebook, and a camera were splayed across the bed.
On the long flight home I thought of Iris Murdoch's "bicycles are the most civilized conveyance known to man." For months afterwards I circled the city, with notebooks in my basket, until eventually the sense of freedom, flight, running away, and migration settled into my words and I found my way into the story.
Posted June 12, 2012
I wanted to give this book 4 stars, but just couldn't quite do it. A Lady Cyclist's Guide to Kashgar is the debut book for author Suzanne Joinson and as such it is a pretty good effort. The book is told from two perspectives, one in the early 1900s and the other in current time. At first, this made the book seem very disjointed to me, especially since there seemed to be two stories going on in the present day, but as the story unfolded, it became clear that the three stories were related and would ultimately join into one story. From the start, I enjoyed the current day story of Frieda, a Londoner who travels extensively in the Middle East. Unfortunately, I found the story from the earlier time period a bit disjointed and hard to follow. The earlier story centers around three women missionaries who are living in Kashgar. As it begins, they find themselves in an unusual and dangerous situation, which is only made worse by their attempts at conversion. The plot set up has all the requirements of a great story about a little known time and place. Unfortunately, while the story is good, it does not deliver the hoped for greatness. To begin with, the characters of the missionaries, although quirky, seem somewhat lackluster. In addition, what I felt would be the most interesting part of the story was totally glossed over. It says something that the most enjoyable part of the book was the completely ordinary story of Frieda in current day London. I would have loved to have seen the author right a more compelling story that focused on the quirks and relationships of the missionary women and/or the situation that bound them to Kashgar. All in all a good book, but it could have been great.
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Posted November 8, 2012
Eva is going on a grand adventure. With her sister Lizzie and her acquaintance Millicent, they are traveling to Kashgar as missionaries. It's a treacherous road for 3 women in the 1920's, but Eva is determined to make the best of it. While she is traveling, Eva is writing a guide for cycling to Kashgar. Back in the present, Freida is a world traveler. She loves the freedom of being able to leave and experience so many wonderful places. Soon though, she meets Tayeb, a man trying to avoid deportation to his native Yemen. She also learns that she is responsible for an apartment full of stuff left to her by a person she has never met. The tales of Freida, Tayeb, and Eva all intermingle as they each work their way through their separate adventures.
This book wasn't at all what I expected. There are two main stories, and it is unclear how they are related for quite a bit. I loved the way they tied in, but I wish the author had dropped a few more clues along the way. I had kind of figured it out, but the payoff felt a little late for me. I loved the feel of the book though. Eva is basically using the mission and missionaries for a chance to see the world. I thought she was a great character. Freida and Tayeb were a bit more difficult to get a feeling for. I also felt like their story had slightly less resolution too. I was very interested in their stories though. I was really drawn into this book, and there were some great surprises too.
Millicent was perhaps the most interesting person in the book. I really wanted some more back story on her, although it really wouldn't have fit in the context of the story. When things were finally brought together in the end, it was nice to see it all make sense. Overall I found this to be a really absorbing and fascinating story.
Galley provided for review.
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