I wrote this review for a distance course in journalism that I’m taking, so just sit back and enjoy the style!
There is a fine history of novels that start with a map, promising travel to distant places following outlandish characters and exotic plotlines. But Suzanne Joinson’s first novel does so much more than relate a thrilling travel yarn that it’s hard to know where to begin.
Let’s start with the plot. In fact there are (or appear to be) two: First, three Edwardian ladies, along with a bicycle and some not so straightforward motives, arrive as missionaries in Central Asia. Their trip goes horribly wrong, not least because of the unorthodox ways of Millicent, the leader of the mission.
Second, in modern-day London Frieda, a travel-weary international affairs analyst, meets Tayeb, a struggling Yemeni immigrant, after he spends the night on the landing outside her flat. The two of them end up sharing Frieda’s search for parts of her family.
Indeed these two strands are not as unconnected as they seem, but Joinson maintains the suspense well past the point where even the most experienced plot second-guesser would expect to have figured it out.
Joinson moves faultlessly to and fro between the two eras, her own prose style nevertheless remaining identifiable, constantly bracketing the two so contrasting lines of the novel together.
If there is one negative point, it is the sketchy account of the key character who binds the two strands the plot together. Knowing more about her would help understand some of the other characters’ motivations better.
But this is a small caveat compared to the mastery of style, suspense, and the deliciously entertaining ability to convincingly bring together apparently incongruous elements that Suzanne Joinson displays in this book. It may be her first, but she is up there with Hilary Mantel and Jane Gardam. The Costa and even the Booker prize committees should start reading her now.