The title caught me first. Then the cover. And oh, the endpapers, they were quite wonderful …
My imagination had been captured, and I was quite ready for the story to take hold of me. It did.
I found myself in Kashgar, in East Turkestan, in 1923. I was in the company of three lady. Christian missionaries. Millicent was their leader, a very capable woman, who was quite sure of the rightness of her mission but was maybe unable to understand that others might see the world rather differently. Lizzie gave her full support to Millicent: but it seemed that she was a leader and not a follower, and I wondered if she was truly following her own path. And then there was Eva, Lizzie’s elder sister …
“In my mind’s eye I conjure up Sir Richard Burton’s crackling eyes. Give me courage Sir Richard! I have convinced Millicent of my missionary calling. I have convinced a publisher of the worth of my proposed book. I have even tricked my dear sister who believes that I am here in His name to do His Good Works. I should be feeling clever. I have escaped England, but why, then always this apprehension? To my surprise, despite a childhood of reading maps and reading adventure stories, I realise that I am quite terrified of the desert …”
Yes, Eva was a little different. I loved reading her words. I loved seeing the world through her eyes, described so beautifully and so naturally And I grew to love her.
The three women changed – were changed – and their relationships changed, as they ran into difficulties and found their journey halted.
I was absorbed, I was fascinated, as more and more of their characters were revealed. And I so wanted to know where the story would take them.
That made it a little disappointing when I found myself pulled back to contemporary London from time to time.
Frieda was another lady traveller, in an age when travel was taken for granted, and maybe the sense of wonder had been lost. She worked for a think tank, travelling through the Arab world, carrying out research. And she had come home to London to find a young Arab man sleeping on her doorstep and a solicitor’s letter, telling her that she was the heir to a woman she knew not at all.
Her story was predictable in places, and there were times when I longed to return to Eva in Kashgar. But there were also wonderful moments, where the story twisted in ways that were quite unexpected, where I found wonderful insights into the human condition. Then I was quite happy to be in such a familiar place. A London that I recognised, but a London that occasionally felt as different as Kashgar.
The two stories had similar themes threaded through: travel, cultural differences, motherhood, women’s independence … so much has changed, and yet so much has remained the same.
They were of course connected. That connection was revealed quite naturally, and it felt completely right.
Indeed, the whole story felt right. I turned the pages quickly, caught up with wonderful characters, fascinating stories, and different worlds, so wonderfully described that they came alive before my eyes.
I suspect that Eva’s love of travel writing, that made her want to travel, reflects the passion of her creator.
“It was reading her descriptions of the candles and lights and the mysterious glittering interiors, the tapirs, silks, the jewels and hangings that had inspired my desire to travel.”
That love shone, and it made it easy for me to forgive those very few weaknesses, to fall in love with this book as a whole.
And now I think I need to find another book to take me travelling again, to see more of the world through the eyes of other lady travellers …