It takes less than a page for Suzanne Joinson to seize your attention: In Kashgar, Turkestan, in 1923, a young Englishwoman helplessly watches a girl about 10 or 11 die in childbirth. “[Her] hair was damp and her eyes were panic-filled, like a horse in a thunderstorm,” Eva, the young woman, later records in her journal. The child’s screams were “loud enough to kill trees.”
Eva is traveling with her sister Lizzie and Lizzie’s mentor, Millicent. They are all missionaries — except that Eva’s piety is a sham, acted out for the benefit of the other two so that she could get in on the travel adventure and write a book about it. The notes she faithfully logs throughout the trip comprise one half of this novel, which pairs the narratives of two young women, living decades — and worlds — apart.
Millicent has been leading them steadily eastward, on the lookout for “heathens” to convert to Christ. They are traveling without male protection, which is asking for trouble in an area so inaccessible to Westerners that cartographers cannot even map it.
With forceps from their supply cart, Millicent manages to pull the baby out alive, but it’s too late to save the mother. A group of natives, who had been silently watching, not only refuse to take the baby, they accuse Millicent of murder and witchcraft, and demand that she be shot. (“Nonsense,” is Millicent’s very English reaction.)
There will have to be a trial, but meanwhile the women are trapped in Kashgar in a sort of rental-house arrest.
Millicent names the infant Ai-Lien and delegates her care to Eva, for whom motherhood was definitely not on the itinerary. Initially Eva is resentful, but soon, when she looks at Ai-Lien, she feels something “crooked” inside her and realizes “as I looked at her soft sleeping face that it was love.”
The other half of the novel, in alternating chapters, concerns Frieda, a consciously, almost radically conventional child of New Age parents. Frieda does research for a European think tank, interviewing young Muslims around the world about their “concerns,” but she’s tiring of the identical hotel rooms, the same food, and the same answers to her questions. Only her affair with Nathaniel, a married man, gives her pleasure, but his visits have become more and more unreliable.
Frieda’s story begins with some bizarre incidents: She finds a Muslim man, apparently homeless, sleeping outside her apartment door; and she receives a bureaucratic letter (signed “R. Griffin, Deaths Manager”) informing her that Irene Guy, an apparent relation she’s never heard of, has died, and as next of kin she must clear out the deceased’s apartment immediately.
Frieda’s and Eva’s stories, told in parallel, eventually converge when Frieda finds Eva’s journal and discovers a link between Eva’s life and her own.
That connection is — or ought to be — the core of the novel. But how meaningful is it? Although Frieda has certain realizations and changes her life in important ways, those changes derive only indirectly, if at all, from what she learns about Eva. The stories converge, yes, but to what purpose? It’s not clear.
The alternating-chapters format works well, for the most part, although it’s frustrating, when you’re involved with one character, to have to shift abruptly to the other, even if the author set it up that way for good reason. It interferes with the ability to truly empathize with either character, which is sad, because both the characters and their stories are compelling.
On the other hand, there is so much here that is wonderful: the author’s crisp, uncluttered story-telling, her graceful prose, and her ability to inhabit the character of a young woman in 1924 and a contemporary young woman with equal depth and ease. It is an impressive first novel.