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.