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The unlikely story of 1920s lady missionaries in exotic Kashgar entwines with the tale of a modern woman in contemporary London.

Evangeline English has inveigled her way onto a 1923 missionary expedition, led by the enigmatic Millicent, to explore the mysterious East and keep an eye on her sister, Lizzie. Along the way, Eva maintains a diary of the group’s travels in the hope of writing a book, A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar, when she returns to England. When the party come across a young girl in labour, they help her give birth. Despite Millicent’s intervention, however, the mother dies and the group of locals who witnessed the birth report the three Englishwomen to authorities in the city of Kashgar, accusing them of murder and witchcraft. The missionaries are placed under house arrest until they can be tried, giving Millicent the perfect opportunity to further her work to convert the city’s Muslim inhabitants to Christianity.

In twenty-first-century London, Frieda, recently returned from a months-long overseas trip, waits for her lover to arrive for a reunion dinner. Instead, she discovers a homeless man, Tayeb, sleeping in the stairwell outside her flat and a letter informing her that she is the next-of-kin to a dead stranger, Irene Guy. Frieda has a week to clear the dead woman’s belongings from her council flat and offers Tayeb the flat to stay in while he figures out how to avoid being arrested and deported. In Irene Guy’s flat, Frieda and Tayeb find a caged owl, a photograph of Frieda’s estranged mother, and a diary.

Eva and Frieda both long for a life different to that provided by their families. Eva wishes to see a world outside the gentle and mannered European life of her parents but her upbringing leaves her unprepared for the hostility she encounters as a missionary in Kashgar. As a child, Frieda, raised by parents who believed in free love and abandoned by her mother at seven, wished only for the stability of a proper home with parents who were devoted to each other. Even as an adult, however, she has struggled to find stability, travelling often for work and falling into an affair with a married man.

A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar is Suzanne Joinson’s first novel and Joinson shows great skill in weaving Eva’s and Frieda’s stories together to create a novel about family and belonging. Joinson’s depiction of each woman’s desires and the lengths they go to in building the lives they want is deft, creating fascinating, well-rounded characters. Both Kashgar and London shine; the cities are characters in themselves, both aiding and impeding Eva and Frieda in their quests. Joinson’s portrayal of the heat and dust of Kashgar and the city’s labyrinthine souks and colourful homes is evocative and mesmerising, helping to bring Eva’s extended stay in the city to vivid life, while London’s drab dankness ­– its hopelessness – is used to great effect to reflect the states of both Frieda’s and Tayeb’s lives.

Ultimately, however, the parallel stories let A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar down, as Joinson’s careful symmetrical construction of Eva’s and Frieda’s journeys leads readers to solve the mystery at the centre of the book well before the protagonists do, which makes for a somewhat dissatisfying read. A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar is saved by the compelling portrayal of Eva’s and Frieda’s quests, and it is witnessing the women’s pursuit of new and better lives that is the greatest reward of the novel.

Suzanne Joinson  A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar, Bloomsbury, 2012, PB, 384pp, $27.99

Kylie Mason is a freelance book editor who lived in London for a time.

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