‘Circling the Sun’ (Ballantine Books, 2015) is author Paula McLain’s masterpiece novel after her much acclaimed ‘The Paris Wife’. It centers around the courageous heroine, Beryl Markham, who will go down in the history books as the first woman pilot to fly solo across the Atlantic. This book however, is the early part of her fictional life story as narrated in first person, by Beryl herself. This significant technique connects the reader with the protagonist immediately – her daring, her toughness and her nostalgia.
Born in England, brought to Kenya as a child, then abandoned by her mother and brother, Beryl is raised by her father, a ranch owner and the native Kipsigis tribe, who share the estate. This very unconventional upbringing transforms Beryl into a bold young woman who challenges the norm that women were supposed to follow in those days, and becomes a horse trainer with a fierce love and understanding of all things wild and an inherent knowledge of nature. Yet, armed with such intuition around animals, she fails to understand people, men in particular, and is thrown into a series of disastrous relationships. Not paying heed to what the world thinks, she forges her own path, which would define her future and her life and her ultimate passion – to fly. There is plenty of scandal and speculation around her life, but she never stops training racehorses or winning derbies. In addition, she also became a bush pilot, working on many safaris in Kenya.
Set in colonial Kenya during the early 20th century, this book transported me in spirit to the majestic landscape of Africa, right from the cover. A woman, her bold uncaring stance – giving a damn about the world – drinking a glass of scotch, against the sparse dusty surroundings. That in itself made me want to read the story. I was completely engrossed right from the beginning. I did not know anything about Beryl Markham before I read this book, so I devoured each bit of her. Writing a fictional account of a historical figure is always tricky. There is a danger of romanticizing or imposing too much clunky research or history. But the author’s depiction of Beryl, of Kenya, of the process of training horses, all felt very real, very grounded in the historical context, without drowning in too much technical detail. The issue of colonialism is not tackled head on, it is more like a backdrop – by indirectly showing the ugly side of the perverse playground of the spoiled settlers. In the midst of all this is young Beryl, who doesn’t feel at home anywhere else, and tries to live an independent life, which was pretty much non-existent for women in those days.
The writing is lush and divine. That is me gushing over the novel, of course. But if I were to analyze it further, I would say it is incisive, and drives the point home. The main character is flawed, in a way that most of us are, but there is nothing flawed about McLain’s method of descriptive storytelling. She brings out the process of Beryl’s self-discovery, and the readers are literally bystanders, watching the captivating tale unfold. I love the passion that I saw through the author’s eyes. The honesty, the courage, at a time when feminism was simply a word to be bandied around, and faced much resistance. And to think, 1920 was when the second wave of feminism was just experiencing its biggest victory – anti-discrimination and equality! The vivid and cinematic writing makes the reader much involved in the story, as the heroine experiences rejection, victory, love, tough choices and ambition. McLain’s own life reflects some of these experiences – abandonment by the mother, growing up around horses, marrying young. The parallels in their lives definitely made McLain feel like she was connected to her subject in a very intimate, singular way.
If you loved the movie ‘Out of Africa’, you will love this book and in fact meet some of the characters again. Beryl Markham actually wrote an eloquent memoir called ‘West of the Night’, which became the author’s inspiration to write this book. It did not receive much attention or regard in the 1940s, until Ernest Hemingway read it and gave it a glowing recommendation. McLain claims that this book chose her – that once she had read the powerful memoir, she was hooked hard. It was republished in the 1980s and hailed as the masterpiece that Hemingway felt it would be. Thus, Markham was able to spend her final years in some comfort. Oh, the tradeoffs we make for fame and recognition! For freedom and living life by our own code! Britain’s own Amelia Earhart. Even though she was born British, she was a Kenyan heart and soul. Even though cast as a libertine, a maverick, a frontrunner for her time, she stole my heart. As she will undoubtedly yours. 5 ****.
Anu Mahadev is a New Jersey based poet, a 2016 MFA graduate from Drew University, NJ and Senior editor for TWI. She is passionate and outspoken about issues such as domestic violence, girls’ education and independence, and depression/bipolar disorder.