Published by Bloomsbury USA on May 22, 2012
The alternating chapters of A Lady Cyclist's Guide to Kashgar tell two stories. One begins in 1923 and takes place largely in the ancient Silk Road city of Kashgar. The other is set in present day London.
Pretending to have a "calling" she does not actually feel, Eva English has joined two missionaries, her sister Lizzie and Lizzie's friend Millicent Frost, on a bicycling trip, all the while journaling her thoughts for a book she intends to write. The three women have reached Kashgar, where Millicent, having assisted in the delivery of a baby, stands accused of causing the death of the baby's mother. They are placed under house arrest at a residence on the outskirts of the city. This does not stop Millicent and Lizzie from infiltrating harems and other gatherings of women to "gossip the gospel" in an effort to convert them. Whether the women are in serious trouble is an open question through much of the novel and the source of slowly growing tension. Eva is more concerned, however, about the strange behavior of Millicent and Lizzie, who seem to be hiding secrets from her, and about the fate of the baby, to whom she has formed a motherly attachment.
Frieda Blakeman is surprised to receive a letter informing her that she is next-of-kin to the recently deceased Irene Guy, a name that means nothing to her. Tayeb Yafai is an illegal immigrant, a frustrated filmmaker from Yemen who is homeless in London. His story intersects with Frieda's when, after spending the night in her hallway, he helps her sort through Irene's property. Frieda's effort to learn about Irene brings her back into contact with her mother, from whom she has been, if not estranged, at least distant.
The linkage between the two stories is not revealed until late in the novel. The connection will nonetheless be obvious to most readers long before it is unveiled.
By far the better of the two, Eva's story is filled with vivid images: Lizzie lashing herself to a tree so she can photograph a sandstorm (a form of self-punishment); the relentless drumming that signals an uprising against foreigners; a long trek to Urumchi through a dangerous desert. The story is at its best when tension develops between Millicent, a crusader for Christ whose mission gives her tunnel-vision, and Eva, who understands that their work is causing newly converted believers to be put to death. To Millicent, the death of the innocent is the necessary cost of spreading her faith. When Millicent quotes a "vicious, vitriolic passage of revenge" from Hosea, the distinction between Millicent and Eva is sharply drawn: Millicent welcomes martyrdom while Eva is grounded in the increasingly desperate reality of their plight.
Although Eva and Frieda are drawn in detail, Eva is more convincing, and the only character with whom I felt an affinity. Frieda and Tayeb exist only to draw parallels between past and present: where Eva was an ill-treated outsider in Kashgar, Tayeb is the same in London. Unfortunately, the creative potential of this idea is never quite fulfilled. Tayeb is an interesting character but his story doesn't come into focus until the concluding chapters, creating the sense of an underdeveloped character attaining momentary significance. Millicent and Lizzie have mental health issues that serve to advance Eva's story while limiting their interest as characters. Frieda's mother is more a caricature than a character.
Once Eva reaches Urumchi, her story loses much of its force. Her story's ending would have been better left unwritten. It seems to have been contrived for those readers who insist on knowing how a character's life turns out after the real story is over. Frieda's (and Tayeb's) story, on the other hand, never has any force to lose; it just fades away.
Despite its faults, A Lady Cyclist's Guide to Kashgar is enjoyable for its graceful prose and for its stirring account of Eva's time in Kashgar. I look forward to Suzanne Johnson's next effort.