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Book Review: A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar

Posted by gck Sunday, May 13, 2012

kashgarA Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar: A Novel by Suzanne Joinson

Genre: Historical Fiction
Rating: *** (out of 5)
Recommended for: historical fiction fans, people who want a glimpse at a lesser-known part of China
Received ARC copy through NetGalley.

Book 7 of 52 in the “Around the World” Challenge

Back-cover summary:
It is 1923. Evangeline (Eva) English and her sister Lizzie are missionaries heading for the ancient Silk Road city of Kashgar. Though Lizzie is on fire with her religious calling, Eva’s motives are not quite as noble, but with her green bicycle and a commission from a publisher to write A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar, 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 a pillow, and in the morning finds the bedding neatly folded and an exquisite drawing of a bird with a long feathery tail, some delicate 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.

My review:
Lovely cover, exotic-sounding story… this sounded like it was going to be a beautiful adventure. In some ways, it was. Kashgar is located in the Uyghur region of China, an area that I wasn’t at all familiar with until I started researching places to visit in China. It was definitely a treat to visit a book that was (half) set there and get a glimpse into a city that mixed Chinese and Muslim influences. The descriptions of the food made my mouth water (“flatbreads, rose yoghurt and tomatoes sprinkles with sugar”) and I happily let the book carry me away to the busy bazaars and sweltering heat of the desert. In the modern narrative, the location was less exotic, but there were still plenty of images for the mind to feast on – Tayeb’s artwork, a bohemian commune, and an owl expecting its owner to engage in a hoot-fest during mating season.

Overall, readers seem to dislike the alternating narrative form of storytelling. I’m not ready to commit myself to that opinion just yet, but I definitely understand the reasons for it. It’s hard enough for an author to come up with one point of view that readers love, and it’s even harder to come up with two. A lot of the time, I’ll strongly prefer one to the other and angrily skim past the less likeable character’s portion to get to what I want to read (like in One Day). With this book, I didn’t favor one character’s sections overall, but at various sections in the book, I definitely favored one narrative to the other. This was often because the two plotlines alternated in when they were more suspenseful, and I would be tempted to skip one narrator’s section to find out what was happening in the other. However, another reason why I didn’t have a strong preference for Eva or Frieda was because the characters weren’t very accessible. I’d describe both of them as independent and modern (for their respective times), but that’s about all I would come up with.

Another thing about having dual narratives is that they have to somehow connect to each other. In some novels, that connection is apparent from the beginning. In this one, it’s not. It isn’t revealed until pretty far into the book, and that revelation wasn’t particularly impactful. I kept reading past that, thinking that a stronger connection would materialize, but it never did. It seemed like the ending of the book could have been fleshed out a lot more.

I’m not an expert by any means, but a few details stood out to me as being inaccurate, which makes me wonder what else might be wrong. There’s a reference to women “looking through the slits of their hijabs,” but typically hijab refers to a head covering. A niqab or something like that would have a slit. There’s also a place where they eat “jiaozi pancakes,” which I’m pretty sure does not exist.

Overall, I’m glad I had the opportunity to read this unique and interesting book. The plot and setting kept me engaged, and I only wish the conclusion could have done justice to the rest.

1 Responses to Book Review: A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar

  1. Jenny Colvin Says:
  2. See, that happens to me sometimes, a book may not be that great, but the food mentioned is still intriguing! It makes me want to make jiaozi pancakes happen.


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