Saturday 24 March 2018

Recycling the past in a tour de force

If you have walked by Dublin's Dame Street branch of Hodges Figgis recently, you may have noticed an old-fashioned bicycle in the window. This was not in deference to the Tour de France -- the basket full of flowers was a dead giveaway -- but rather in honour of the publication of Suzanne Joinson's debut novel, A Lady Cyclist's Guide To Kashgar.

Joinson is herself a keen cyclist but, despite the title, ladies on bicycles is only an incidental aspect of this romantic story, set in two different eras but interconnected down through the ages.

The book begins in 1923 with Evangeline, who is on a trip to the remote town of Kashgar with her sister, Lizzie, and a missionary called Millicent. When they try to help a girl who dies while giving birth they are accused of murder and put under house arrest.

Meanwhile, in present-day London, a young woman called Frieda has just returned from one of many work trips to find a Yemeni man asleep on her doorstep.

Later that day, she receives a letter from the council telling her she is the next-of-kin contact for a woman who has just died, a woman she has never heard of.

As the story shifts back and forth between the two eras, we discover the links between the two stories, the amazon distances between them and the delicate ties that bind.

Joinson began writing the book on her own extensive travels. Like Frieda, she spent years travelling to far-flung outposts working for the British Council and it was on these trips that she began to lay the seeds that would become her debut novel.

"I was travelling loads for my job. It wouldn't have been unusual for me to be in Moscow, Istanbul, Shanghai and Paris in one month. It was fabulous for the first couple of years and then after a while I started getting the madness that comes with hotel rooms. I started writing in those hotel rooms and airports.

"Meanwhile, I had started to research women travel writers from the 1920s and 1930s and was really interested in the fact that they could get to places that I couldn't get to, like Iraq and Afghanistan."

The character of Millicent came from real-life inspiration. She is not your average religious zealot. "After World War One, there were no men -- they had all been killed. There was a huge surge of applications from women to become missionaries," says Joinson.

"Through the diaries I was reading in the British Library, I realised they weren't all religiously motivated. Usually it was caused by some kind of crisis like the death of a parent or loved one and it led to this thirst for travel."

While this is Joinson's debut novel, she has written short stories before and won the New Writing Ventures Prize for her story, Laila Ahmed, which was inspired by a box of letters she found at a market.

Joinson now has two children under the age of four, works part-time at the British Council and is working on a PhD . . . as well as writing her second novel. Where does she find the time?

"I don't have any social life and I don't watch any telly," she laughs. "I spent the whole of my 20s with loads of time to write a book but didn't get it together, and then as soon as I got pregnant I realised even if you only have two hours you just have to go for it."

As with the box of letters she found, Joinson has a fascination with the secret stories behind things.

"It feels to me like there's traces of the past everywhere. If you open yourself up to it, all of these stories come flooding out and it's almost as if they want to be told."

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