This wonderful title comes from the book Evangeline English is contracted to write about the journey she’s about to take. The story begins with a bike. Or a baby. Or perhaps a bird? ‘A bird of the air shall carry the voice, and that which hath wings shall tell the matter.’ is quoted at the start of the book. Evangeline lives with her sister Lizzie and their mother. She has taken up cycling, on a green BSA Lady’s Roadster which may have looked something like this. ‘since the first time I pedalled and felt the freedom of cycling, I’ve known that it is the closest one can get to flying.’ Her guide is Bicycling for Ladies by Maria E Ward (1896) and excerpts from the book appear before each chapter. For example, ‘A Few Things to Remember: Study the country you are to travel and the road-surface, understand your map, know your route, its general direction, etc. Always observe the road you cover; keep a small note-book, and jot down everything of interest.’
It’s 1923 and Lizzie, under the influence of domineering Millicent, decides to go to Kashgar to help found a Christian mission. Evangeline is determined to go, too, and to take her trusty bike with her. Not that she wants to convert anyone; just to leave home. ‘Our luggage was labelled with fantastical words: BERLIN. BAKU. KRASNOVODSK. OSH. KASHGAR.’ The bike will be useful (‘We took the Roadster to carry our supplies and what a caravan we made: myself, two Chinese guards, Millicent, Lizzie.’) but the project is ill-fated from the moment they arrive in Kashgar. The first thing they see is a young girl, giving birth in the road. After Millicent’s intervention, the girl dies, Evangeline takes charge of the baby and they are all placed under house arrest. The natives are hostile, the area seethes with religious and political unrest. It’s no place for an English lady and soon Evangeline’s chief ambition is to get out, with the baby.
Meanwhile, in present day London, there’s another story, told in alternate chapters. Frieda has just returned from yet another job abroad when two strange things happen to her at once. She finds a letter waiting, informing her of the death of a woman she has never heard of, yet who has named her as next of kin. She is requested to clear the woman’s flat of anything she wants before the council moves in. Then she finds a strange man asleep outside the door of her flat. He is Tayeb, a man who has fled the Yemen, has lived in England as ‘an illegal’ for fifteen years and is now on the run. He turns out to be brilliant at calligraphy and at drawing birds. They are both rootless types, cut off from their families. Frieda befriends him and he helps her sort the stuff in the flat. What they find provides the link between the two stories and tells Frieda something about her own famiy.
Tayeb is smuggled away by friends and Frieda is left with the few salvaged possessions. What she will do with them, in particular with the live owl (!) we have no idea, so the book ends rather suddenly and inconclusively. It is highly original and the descriptions of the desert journeys and hardships of the failed mission stay with you. A very interesting book.
I read this thanks to NetGalley. To be published by Bloomsbury, ISBN 9781408825143.