Reading Guide: A Lady Cyclist`s Guide to Kashgar

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Reading Group Guide
A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar
In Brief
An extraordinary story of inheritance, belonging, and the stories that bind us to our past,
set in present-day London and 1920s Kashgar.
In Detail
It is 1923 and Evangeline English arrives from England with her bicycle and her sister,
Lizzie, at the ancient Silk Road city of Kashgar to help establish a Christian mission.
Lizzie is in thrall to their forceful and unyielding leader Millicent, but Eva’s motivations
for leaving her comfortable life back home are less clear-cut. As they attempt to navigate
their new surroundings and are met with resistance and calamity, Eva begins work on the
book she has been commissioned to write, A Lady Cyclist's Guide to Kashgar.
In present-day London another story unfolds. Frieda, a young woman adrift in her
own life, opens her front door one night to find a man sleeping on the landing. In the
morning he is gone, leaving on the wall an exquisite drawing of a long-tailed bird and a
line of Arabic script. Tayeb, who has fled to England from Yemen, has arrived on
Frieda's doorstep just as she learns that she is the next-of-kin to a dead woman she has
never heard of. The two wanderers begin an unlikely friendship as their worlds collide,
and they embark on a journey that is as great, and as unexpected, as Eva's.
A stunning debut peopled by unforgettable characters, A Lady Cyclist's Guide to
Kashgar is an extraordinary story of the search for belonging in a fractured and
globalised world.
Discussion
1. The opening chapters mention blood several times: ‘Blood from the young mother
quickly formed a red crescent in the dust’ (5); ‘watching for a moment the blood-swill of
it drain away’ (10). Discuss the significance of blood in linking Eva and Frieda
throughout the novel.
2. Discuss the similarities and differences between Eva’s experiences in Kashgar and
Frieda’s life in London. Does Frieda, though effectively at home in London, experience a
similar alienation to that of Eva in Kashgar?
3. What do you consider is gained through the setting of the novel in two separate and yet
connected time periods?
4. Joinson’s protagonists are predominantly women, and in Kashgar, Eva has contact
largely with local women. Discuss the different types of women embodied in the novel
and think about the reasons why Joinson may have chosen to focus on women and female
relationships.
5. What is the novel’s portrayal of men in general? Is there some significance to be found
in the fact that both Eva and Frieda move through the world unsupported by a husband?
6. Eva treasures her green bicycle and, when Tayeb first sees Frieda, he notes her red
bicycle. Is it a coincidence that these women have bicycles in common? What do you
think the bicycle represents in this novel?
7. Eva is a missionary but seems unconvinced about Christianity. Why has she travelled
to Kashgar? Are her reasons specific to her time-period or would they still resonate now?
8. The novel opens with passages about birds, and animal imagery is used throughout.
What is the significance of the bird motif?
9. The caged pigeons belonging to father Don Carlo and Irene’s caged owl raise
questions about whether it is better to be free, or to be caged and perhaps therefore safe.
Discuss.
10. ‘That Leica! I should like to stamp on it, that box of images, its trickery’ (53).
Discuss the image of the camera, present throughout the novel, and whether you see it as
a divide or a connection between the characters.
11. Consider the relationship between Eva and Lizzie. Could their relationship be
compared with other sisters in literature, such as the March sisters in Little Women, or
Elizabeth and Jane in Pride and Prejudice?
12. ‘It is here that our desert pathway to God must be laid’ (55). Discuss the theme of
journeys, both in relation to Eva’s physical journey and Frieda’s journey towards
understanding the mystery of Irene Guy.
13. Did the ending of the novel surprise you?
Suggested reading
Ahdaf Soueif, The Map of Love; Barbara Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible; Mary
Morris with Larry O’Connor, (eds.), The Virago Book of Women Travellers; Tim
Mackintosh-Smith, Yemen: Travels in Dictionary Land; Michael Cunningham, The
Hours
Suzanne Joinson works in the literature department of the British Council, and travels
widely across the Middle East, North Africa, China, and Europe. In 2007 she won the
New Writing Ventures Award for Creative Non-Fiction for her story “Laila Ahmed.”
Suzanne is studying for a Ph.D. in creative writing at Goldsmiths, University of London,
and lives by the sea in Sussex, England.
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