Saturday, 16 June 2012

A Lady Cyclist's Guide to Kashgar by Suzanne Joinson

I love to travel.  I don't get a chance to do it very often, so armchair travelling is often the next best thing.  As soon as I heard about A Lady Cyclist's Guide to Kashgar, I knew I would have to read it and was thrilled to be approved for a copy on Netgalley.

A Lady Cyclist's Guide to Kashgar is a dual narrative story set in the past and the present.  In 1923, Evangeline (Eva) and her sister set out on a missionary trip to the Silk Road city of Kashgar, which has a fusion of Chinese and Islamic culture.  But Eva is only pretending to be a missionary; she dreams of becoming an adventurer like her hero Richard Burton and of writing a best-selling account of her travels.  In the present day, Frieda works for a think tank travelling around various Arab countries and producing reports.  Returning to London after another long trip she finds Tayeb sleeping by her door and a letter informing her of an inheritance from someone she has never heard of.

A Lady Cyclist's Guide to Kashgar contains many elements that I generally love in fiction - a dual narrative, historical fiction elements, Islamic culture, travel and feminism/independent women.  I was expecting to love it and it completely lived up to my expectations.  After a bit of a slow start the pace picked up and I was soon completely engrossed in what would happen to Eva and Frieda.  What I loved most was the way the author's love of travel completely suffused the whole novel and how Eva grew up reading travel books, just like I did;

"It was reading her descriptions of the candles and lights and the mysterious glittering interiors, the tapirs, silks, the jewels and hangings that had inspired my desire to travel."

As with any dual narrative book, one story was stronger than the other.  Whilst I enjoyed reading about Frieda, it was Eva's story that captivated me.  The woman in charge of their missionary trip, Millicent, has no concept of sensitivity to local culture and the three women soon find themselves in danger, forcing Eva to confront the darker side of travel ("despite a childhood of examining maps and reading adventure stories, I realise I am quite terrified of the desert").  I just flew through Eva's sections of the book.

Although I subjectively loved this book, I can see that it's not without fault.  At times it feels like Joinson is trying to do too much, commenting on travel, motherhood, women's rights, prejudice against Muslims, alternative childhoods, cults and adultery.  Some readers won't connect with Frieda's story.  But despite all of this, I just loved A Lady Cyclist's Guide to Kashgar and would recommend it to anyone who enjoys travel books or historical fiction.

Source: From Bloomsbury, via Netgalley
Published: 4th June 2012
Score: 4.5 out of 5

Read Alongside:
1. The Sandalwood Tree by Elle Newmark - Another dual narrative travel story, this one set in India.  One of the stories centers around two unconventional Victorian women and India is a character in it's own right.
2. The Mistress of Nothing by Kate Pullinger - Sally travels to Egypt with her mistress, Lady Duff Gordon and finds the restraints of Victorian society slightly loosened.  Wonderful descriptions of Egypt.

19 comments:

  1. I have this one on my Kindle and need to get around to it soon! You've made it sound worthy of a little armchair traveling!

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  2. Sometimes it feels like every book I read is set part in past and present these days! Sometimes I long for a simple narrative although this does sound interesting.

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    1. Thinking about it, dual narratives do seem to be very fashionable at the moment! I'm a fan though, so I don't mind...

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  3. I've seen this one a few times and think I really need to give it a shot :) Thanks for the very honest and specific review :)

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    1. Hope you enjoy it if you do give it a go.

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  4. I have had my eye on this book for sometime, so I appreciate your detailed review. I may have to wait a bit to give it a try since I just finished a book that had too much going on and it was too distracting. I know this may not be the same thing, but I am not sure that I would be able to go into it with an open mind right now.

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    1. Steph, there is quite a bit going on in this book but I didn't find it distracting, although I think others might. Hope you enjoy it at some point in the future!

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  5. I have been looking at this book and may have to break down and download it to my kindle. Thanks for the mention of The Sandlewood Tree. I may blame you personally for my TBR pile growing and growing .... LOL

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    1. Go ahead, break down and download it :P
      I'm sure your TBR is not as big as mine....

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  6. Set in 1923? That's very...different. It sounds like a wonderful book, and I've just added it to my TBR. Like FABR Steph, I really enjoyed your detailed review :) Thank you so much for bringing this book to my attention!

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    1. Yeah, it's a unique setting and time, which was one of the reasons I wanted to read it in the first place. Hope you get a chance to read it.

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  7. You liked this book far more than I did, I'm afraid, as I thought both narratives were fairly weak and inconsistent. Vive la diference!

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  8. How interesting! I have been to Kashgar - actually, this time last year I was in the same city, and to be frank - I hated the place. I went there thinking of the historical importance of the city, and all I wanted to do was get out of it. Does this book also offer rose-tinted views of Kashgar? I would love to read it still - especially since the themes you like resonate with mine! ;-)

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    1. How interesting that you've been to Kashgar, and what a shame it didn't live up to your expectations. Kashgar wasn't glorified in the book - it was described as exotic compared to Eva's background but it was also described as a dangerous, prejudiced place.

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  9. I think it's so funny that the protagonist pretends to be a missionary. It seems like an awful lot to go through, but I suppose there were so few ways for women to travel at that time.

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  10. I hadn't heard of this book! All the topics you mention really appeal to me... sounds like a must read. Have just added it to my wish list.

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  11. I have this one waiting for me. I really enjoyed Mistress of Nothing, so I hope I'll like this one too. I'm glad you did!

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