British first-time novelist Joinson intersperses a missionary’s adventures along the war-torn Silk Road to China in 1923 with a young woman’s more mundane travails in modern-day London.
Eva has accompanied her younger sister Lizzie, a talented photographer, and Lizzie’s domineering religious mentor Millicent to Asia in 1923 without missionary zeal but in search of adventure. Traveling by bicycle, Eva keeps a notebook she hopes to turn into a book about the journey. After the mother of a baby Millicent has delivered dies, the three British women are placed under house arrest in the Muslim city of Kashgar. As their safety deteriorates, Eva becomes uncomfortably aware of raw sexual tension between emotionally fragile, epileptic Lizzie and authoritarian, religiously fanatic Millicent. Millicent sloughs responsibility for the orphaned infant, called Ai-Lien, onto Eva. Initially, Eva resents the responsibility but soon becomes a passionately devoted mother. Shift to London and Frieda, a think-tank specialist on Islamic youth. Just returned from a researching trip in an unnamed Middle Eastern country in turmoil, Frieda realizes that her five-year affair with her married lover may be ending and learns that she has been named as the only relative and beneficiary in the will of a dead woman named Irene Guy. Eva has never heard of her. Having befriended Tayeb, a homeless Sudanese filmmaker with an expired visa who has been camping out in her hallway, Eva suggests he stay in Irene’s now vacant flat. Slowly Frieda and Eva’s connections are revealed. Each struggles to find her voice and independence despite social pressures. Each must define love for herself, even if it defies convention. Not only do the exotic locale and life-and-death violence make Eva’s story more riveting than Frieda’s, but she is also a more compelling heroine; her life defies formulaic expectations, while Frieda’s romantic evolution is familiar to any reader of women’s fiction.
As often happens in novels that travel between past and present, the past sparkles while the present pales.