Tag Archives: Susan Duerden

A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar by Suzanne Joinson

If you feel a vague sense of déjà vu reading this novel, that may be because, like me, you’re strongly reminded of another dual-timed story featuring a bold Englishwoman trekking through faraway lands whose expectations-be-damned!-uncommon-life-back-then is pieced together through left-behind words and pictures by a descendant living now. While more than one book might fit that description, the title I’m specifically recalling is Ahdaf Soueif‘s 1999 Booker Prize shortlisted The Map of Love

Here, ‘then’ belongs to 1923 and Evangeline English – who could not be more ironically named. Never far from her trusty bicycle, she finds herself traveling to Kashgar, East Turkestan (in today’s western China), where the sight of “a woman riding [said bicycle] is simply unimaginable.” She and her “unadventurous” younger sister Lizzie have escaped the “damp, phlegmatic dreariness of an English winter” to accompany the fiery Millicent Frost (oh these names!), a woman blinded by her missionary zeal, more arrogant bulldog than convincing emissary. Early into their journey, the trio discovers a young local girl, 10 or 11, “with a belly as ripe as a Hami melon.” Millicent delivers a tiny baby right there in the desert, but loses the young mother in childbirth. “[We] find ourselves in a situation,” Evangeline writes on the first page, one that eventually continues into “London, Present Day.”

In central London, peripatetic Frieda (take note of that name, as well) has just returned from her latest “research job”-assignment. In the wee hours of a lonely first night home, she gives up on waiting for her unreliable married lover, and instead finds a strange man sitting just outside her door. Instead of calling for help, she silently passes him a blanket and pillow; in the morning, she finds a drawing of a large bird she doesn’t recognize on the wall next to her door. Later that day, she will open her life to another complete stranger, the late Irene Guy who has inexplicably named Frieda her ‘next-of-kin,’ whose possessions Frieda must be clear out from her in-demand Council flat (subsidized government housing) within the week.

Dislocation, secrets, misconnections, legacies, incompatible pairings … and, mysterious birds (!), all play a part in this multi-pronged, multi-cultured, multi-perspective journey of discovery, even if questions outnumber eventual answers. I should also add that discovery might be best enjoyed unmitigated; narrator Susan Duerden gives Frieda an impossibly young, thoroughly grating persona which surely doesn’t exist on the page.

For would-be writers, Suzanne Joinson explains on her website “About” page how the purchase of “a box of letters from Deptford Market in London” led her to writing a short story about her “quest to find out who [the letters] belonged to.” The story won a prize generous enough to buy a laptop and provide a year’s mentoring which led to writing this debut novel. In both Map and Guide, connecting such mysterious letters are – no surprisingly – integral to the storytelling. Joinson herself adds a useful moral for literary wannabes: “go to flea markets! And car boots … and don’t get me started on the buried stories to be found in second hand and thrift shops.” Bestselling inspiration indeed.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2012

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, British, Chinese, Middle Eastern

The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht

With the gushing acknowledgement of her debut novel – 2011 Orange Prize, 2011 National Book Award finalist, enthusiastic thumbs up from the New Yorker, New York Times, and too many starred reviews to count – Téa Obreht is already a renowned wunderkind.

Always curious about that level of fuss, I finally picked up the novel, and stuck it into my ears (narrated by veteran audible regulars Susan Duerden and Robin Sachs). Perhaps that’s where I went wrong … perhaps this is fiction meant only to be read, not listened to. Still, I’m compelled to out myself as quite possibly the only person on the planet who thinks the overwhelming hype surrounding Tiger’s Wife is more hyperbole than substance.

Here’s the story – three, actually, to be more precise: 1. Young Dr. Natalia takes a detour from her work at an orphanage across the border to collect the few belongings of her beloved grandfather who has unexpectedly died far from home; 2. Natalia’s grandfather shares his memories of “the deathless man,” a mysterious stranger who never aged and, no matter what, could never die; and 3. Natalia uncovers her grandfather’s childhood tale of the abused, deaf, mute woman known as ‘the tiger’s wife.’

So here’s what I ultimately got from the cleverly intertwining narrative strands: wunderkind Obreht (born in 1985, making her barely in her mid-20s) has no problem putting together gorgeous, mellifluous sentences. She will, without a shadow of a doubt, write even more amazing, more accomplished books in the years to come. But my bottom line … in spite of the gorgeous prose and the epic stories, Tiger’s Wife in the end, just didn’t move me.

No characters stood out as spectacular, in spite of the spectacular things that happened to many of them. The remembrances of things past – especially of war and the price of survival – felt too distanced and detached to resonate. Natalia’s grandmother is too shrill, her mother strangely absent, Natalia too self-absorbed in her endless ruminations about what might or might not be happening. Even the mythic characters of her grandfather’s childhood – the eponymous tiger’s wife, her desperately abusive husband, the legendary bear man, the wandering apothecary – hardly lived up to their potential uniqueness.

Perhaps three stories in one were too much for one novel. Which only proves Obreht must have the imagination for many more. My current disappointment aside, for now the waiting begins for what is surely to come …

Readers: Adult

Published: 2011

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, European