I am always drawn to historical fiction, and the novel A Lady Bicyclist Guide to Kashgar, by Suzanne Joinson caught my interest for this reason. Kashgar is a city in western China, which is bordered by the countries of Tajikistan and Krygystan, and was a major outpost by during the heyday of the Silk Road. Kashgar is one of the heavily Muslim populated regions of China, which is still resisting the influence of Chinese culture. I was intrigued as to why the three young missionary women, Eva, Lizzie, and Millicent even traveled to Kashgar to spread the Christian gospel. In actuality, Eva is not really a hardcore missionary, but she uses this as an excuse to write her guide about lady bicycling in to and around Kashgar.
Something about this novel reminded me of other novels set in exotic locations in the 1920′s by D.H. Lawrence, and I did enjoy it for that reason alone. The jarring event from the start is how the three missionary women, led by Millicent, insist on helping a young girl of about ten give birth to a child, but she dies in the process. The locals immediately put under house arrest pending a trial, and believe Millicent possesses some sort of evil magic because she was the primary one assisting with the birth. The natives of Kasghar would rather have seen the young girl giving birth die along with her child, and I am immediately disturbed by this event.
So these three women are under house arrest because of assisting with the birth of an unwanted child, and isolated from the Inland Mission they are supposed spreading the gospel with, refuses to send money so they can bribe their way out of Kashgar. This is yet another novel that portrays exactly why missionaries in foreign lands are problematic, and is in the vein of many of the novels written by Pearl S. Buck.
Millicent makes their precarious situation worse by befriending a local Catholic priest, and their decision to print religious tracks that incite religious and political rebellion. The actions of Millicent make the Inland Mission reluctant to help the three ladies, except for Mr Steinying, who advises Eva to get out as soon as she can. With the predicament the ladies end up in in Kashgar thanks mostly to Millicent’s actions, I wonder how they traveled so far without having problems before this. I suppose I would have liked of the first part of the book devoted to the trip along the Silk Road, but of course the bulk of the story is about Kashgar, but I felt something was missing without a more detailed description of the journey to this location. We get this later on when Eva travels back to England, but I prefer hearing about the journey to a place. Of course an author has to decide what to focus on, and perhaps that would have been extraneous for this story.
Eva soon finds out that Millicent has put her sister Lizzie under a spell because they are in a secret love affair, and it seems she is jealous of her sister for this reason. Knowing that Lizzie is weak minded, I am awed that Eva allows Millicent to put her sister on a religious fast. Yes, we know Eva is upset because Lizzie is no longer her confidante, but sometimes the emotionally stronger sibling in the equation needs to look beyond hurt feelings, and protect her family. However, this is a bit of a story about survival of the fittest, and eventually it is every woman for herself, with Eva being the woman who has to look out for herself, and her adopted daughter Ai-Lien.
Eva becomes attached to raising Ai-Lien, the biological daughter of the young girl her perished at childbirth. Once Eva makes it her mission to look out for Ai-Lien, she pretty much gives up on Lizzie and her well being. I am not saying Eva completely abandons Lizzie, as being under house arrest in Kashgar and the influence of Millicent put some of these things out of her control, but if it had been me, I would have packed up my sister and the baby, and hightailed it out of the city as soon as I realized what a train wreck Millicent truly was.
Even though Millicent puts the ladies at risk as she does not seem to understand, or does not care to understand, that you cannot incite political and religious unrest, which even goes against the wishes of the Inland Mission’s guidelines of setting up a school for the local children. Millicent is completely selfish, and despite her command the local Turki language and Chinese, she is a bit out of it when it comes to her dealings with the local people. She attempts to convert a Muslim girl to Christianity, and you have to wonder about her motivations, especially since Lizzie becomes jealous of the time Millicent is spending with her new convert. If you want to know how not to act during your expatriate travels, then paying attention to Millicent would be key.
Even though Millicent is a purely selfish and reckless character, I am still a bit upset about her fate. I do not want to give too much away, but the fate of Millicent and Lizzie is part of the reason I ended up not liking the book as much as I would have. Eva’s story is quite captivating and spunky, but Lizzie’s and Millicent’s ultimate demise really were a bit jarring for me.
Thus far I have only talked about Eva and the missionary women, but there is also another character named Frieda, who is a modern day English research traveling throughout the Middle East. Frieda is back in London and is notified that a woman named Irene Guy has passed away, and left the contents of her flat to her. I quickly make the connection between Eva and Frieda, but it was intriguing to watch Frieda slowly connect the dots of her own life story with that of Eva’s, which culminates with the discovery of the journal that resulted in the publication of A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar. Anyone who enjoys exploring their roots and genealogy will enjoy Frieda’s discovery. Frieda also meets a man name Tayeb, who was sleeping outside her doorway because he had no place to go. They become friends, and he accompanies her on the journey of learning more about her past. Tayeb’s penchant for drawing on walls is peculiar, but his artwork would be interesting to see.
All in all, A Lady Cyclist’s Guide To Kashgar is an interesting book that gives us another glimpse into a part of China that is not usually talked about. Tonight I have been watching videos on YouTube so I can visualize what Kashgar looks like today, which has sparked my interest in rereading certain passages of this book.