Photo: Scene in Kashgar China

Kashgar, China, is one of the settings for Suzanne Joinson's new book that interwines the lives of missionaries in the 1920s with contemporary Londoners.

Photograph by Josef Polleross, Anzenberger/Redux

By Don George

Book of the Month: A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar, by Suzanne Joinson

In this richly crafted fictional debut, author Suzanne Joinson straddles time and geography with the interwoven tale of three missionaries in rural China in the 1920s and a young woman and a homeless Yemeni man in contemporary London.

The missionaries, Millicent Frost and sisters Elizabeth and Evangeline English, are travelling from England to the desert wilds of Kashgar to convert the Muslim locals when, before they even reach the Silk Road city’s gates, an unanticipated emergency leaves them taking care of an orphaned baby—and accused of murder. From this portentous beginning, their odyssey unravels through a series of encounters with local women, Chinese and Central Asian merchants and functionaries, and fellow Western missionaries. Joinson possesses an extraordinary ability to conjure exotic details, such as the curled, dried roots and animal feet hung up to dry in the market, the cinnamon-hued papery bark of the Acer griseum and the dark-red Tibetan lady’s-slipper orchids blooming in the missionaries’ garden, and the sand-whipped air that reaches even their innermost room during a desert sandstorm.

Alternating chapters unfold the tale of Frieda, an untethered young Englishwoman who frequently travels to Asia and the Middle East to research reports on contemporary life, and Tayeb, a homeless man who has fled Yemen and ended up in London, on Frieda’s doorstep. After she offers him a blanket and a pillow, the two befriend each other and end up making their own journey, which unexpectedly intersects the missionaries’ tale.

At its heart, this exquisite novel celebrates the gifts that travel into far-off cultures confers: the displacements that throw into resilient relief our transcendent human connections.

New Book Roundups

Summer Satire

Michael Frayn concocts classic chaos in Skios, a novel named after the private Greek island where an eminent scientist is supposed to address a prestigious foundation’s annual gathering. When the scientist goes missing, a farce of mistaken identities and misdirected dreams unfurls, gently skewering academics, industrialists, socialites, and philanthropists in bright Aegean sunlight. Junior nurse Alice Bhatti is a Christian in a predominantly Islamic society, a woman, and born into a low caste—an unlikely savior to the patients in Karachi’s Sacred Heart Hospital for All Ailments. In his novel Our Lady of Alice Bhatti, Mohammed Hanif uses comedy to illuminate the role of women in Pakistan’s strict social hierarchy.

Revisiting a Past Life

After years living in the United States, food and travel writer Salma Abdelnour moved back to her hometown of Beirut, Lebanon, where she attempts to pick up the threads of a life her family left a generation ago in Jasmine and Fire. Now in his sixties, author and naturalist Redmond O’Hanlon exhumes the spirits of his past on a rambling road trip around England with journalist and author Rudi Rotthier, who asks the probing questions and dutifully takes notes in The Fetish Room.

Working an Angle

In his first book, journalist and filmmaker Andrew Blackwell takes “off the beaten path” to extremes by exploring some of the world’s most environmentally devastated places in Visit Sunny Chernobyl. A devoted Jane Austen fan and a writing and literature professor, Amy Elizabeth Smith traveled throughout Central and South America organizing book clubs to read her favorite author in All Roads Lead to Austen. In Guatemala she meets working-class heroines who find Austen’s themes of classism and prejudice relevant to their own lives. And personal romances in Mexico and Argentina leave Smith wondering if perhaps she has met her own Señor Darcy.

History, Old and New

In an effort to fill gaps in his historical knowledge and experience the times and places that changed history, Charlie Schroeder, in Man of War, travels across America to participate with military reenactors in such varied battles as the storming of a Roman fort in Arkansas and the German advance on Stalingrad during World War II in Colorado. While the adventures of Burton, Stanley, and Livingstone received much acclaim during their lifetimes, the exceptional explorations of their contemporary Heinrich Barth have been almost forgotten. A Labyrinth of Kingdoms: 10,000 Miles through Islamic Africa, by Steve Kemper, tells the story of one of the great feats of Victorian-era exploration—Barth’s five-and-a-half-year, 10,000-mile trek through North and Central Africa in the 1850s.

One Last Thing

Remembrance of Flings Past

As someone with a comfortable Connecticut suburb, a New England prep school, and an Ivy League university in my past, I recognized instantly the WASPy wonderland of Maggie Shipstead’s Seating Arrangements. In this dead-on delightful novel about a three-day weekend wedding on an exclusive island off the coast of Cape Cod, deep-rooted infatuations burst into outrageous misbehavior, and the isolated enclave becomes the stage for a champagne-fueled, saltwater-scented comedy of upper-crust New England manners and mores. Shipstead’s loving lampoon reminded me anew of the bounties of my East Coast upbringing—and the blessings of my current California home.

Don George has won numerous awards for his work as a travel writer and editor. He is the author of Travel Writing and the editor of eight literary travel anthologies, including Lights, Camera…Travel!, A Moveable Feast, and The Kindness of Strangers. E-mail Don at dgeorge@ngs.org.

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