It is 1923 and we are in Kashgar which is in the western extremity of China. This book is already going to take you on a journey which you have probably never had before, it did me.
Eva is out there with her sister, Lizzie under the pretence of wanting to help her set up a Christian Mission with the rather forceful and arrogant Millicent who seems to me to have brainwashed Lizzie into a completely different life from the one perhaps would have taken. Millicent immediately comes across and throughout the book as someone who pray’s on a persons weakness and uses that method to be able to gain trust, loyalty and ultimate respect for her Christian beliefs. In fact as the book goes on you can see this in clearer detail with horrifying consequences.
But for Eva, she is somewhat lost when her original plan of surreptitiously writing a guide to cycling and the area is over taken by an event which sees her literally being left to hold the baby as the British idiom goes. Eva suddenly discovers something else in her; a belief in her that she has to protect.
All around them there is strong cultural differences and Eva, Lizzie and Millicent are as much learning about new ways as they are trying to teach or force their message across. Self preservation only seems to function in Eva, and when it is time to escape she has to carry on a very different journey.
Interspersed with chapters about Eva, is the story in the present day of Frieda who is also trying to escape. But Frieda does not know what she is trying to escape from; her married lover, her persistent travelling abroad for work; unstructured upbringing which resulted in an estrangement from her wanderlust mother.
Two things happen to Frieda which make her stop, reassess and find a new path; a chance meeting with Tayeb, a refugee, needing shelter. And an actual key to the past that hints at perhaps why Frieda’s mother was like she was and then there are the clues which point to a time back travelling in the Nineteen Twenties.
And so the links and ties are complete and both narratives have a purpose and meaning. For me Eva’s story is all the stronger brought to life by the extreme cultural differences, the food, the sights and sounds of the journey which leapt off the page. I could feel the intense heat, I could feel the worry for an ill sister, the sheer arrogance of Millicent as she peddled her beliefs not taking into account that anyone could possible view things differently. This was a journey like no other, made all the more interesting by the location, the environment and the challenges it brought. Out on this journey you could understand the culture and how it fitted in to the place. How Eva was never going to fit in.
But the modern day story had its cultural differences, ones that seemed completely at odds within an English seaside town or a capital city. To me it was a very jarring part of the story, it did not flow as it should. I never felt for Frieda and was always just reading the pages to get to the next part of Eva’s story. There were flashes of interest here and when towards the end of the book, Frieda finds some closure, it showed another culture, not in its original environment. Nonetheless I can actually see upon reflection that it actually did have a role within the book but it was perhaps not as strong as it could have been.
I did not think I would find such a book so fascinating, travel fiction is not necessarily something I would choose to read but historical fiction and this books fits into many genres. I had heard good things about this book and wanted to find out more. I am so glad I did. This is a book which as a début novel will probably be a slow starter but suddenly then thrust into everyone’s view as a book to read.
I admit to being slightly confused to start off with this book, I think it was the names of the places that threw me. It was an area of the world which I have never thought of and know little if nothing about. This book became an education and I had to brush up on my geography once I had finished it.
I was irritated by the character of Millicent who with her beliefs got right under my skin. A sign of good writing in my opinion and when you can see others that are influenced so strongly it made me realise how religion can be spread so quickly and widely.
What also was a surprise to me was the mention of Southsea, where Eva and Lizzie have to move to from Geneva because of their father’s failing health.
Mother, quite a name in Geneva, with her red hair and committees and pamphlets, was as unprepared as Lizzie and I for our first sight of the desolate Southsea tea-houses closed for the winter, and the pier asserting its futile defiance against the interminable unfriendliness of the grey, spitting sea.
Southsea is a mere mile or so from where I live, and has two piers I think perhaps it is this pier above that Suzanne Joinson was perhaps referring to in her book.
Thank you to Amazon Vine for the opportunity to read this book.