In her latest novel, Paula McLain fictionalizes the exploits of real-life heroine Beryl Markham. As a young English girl transplanted to Africa, Beryl grew up running wild in British colonial Kenya. She survived a lion attack and later became the colony’s first female horse trainer and eventually the first female aviator to cross the Atlantic from east to west.
“After five hundred feet of runway, [the plane’s] tail comes up, ponderously,” the narrator tells us in the book’s prologue, as she embarks on that dangerous flight. “I urge her faster, feeling the drag of gravity, the impossible weight of her, feeling more than seeing the red flag growing nearer. After what seems like forever, the rudder and elevator finally come to life, swinging her nose up.”
McLain’s previous novel, The Paris Wife, was written from the point of Hadley, the first Mrs. Ernest Hemingway. In that book McLain had to contend with the Hemingway mystique, but in Circling the Sun, she turns her attention to a somewhat less famous woman — arguably a more intriguing historic figure — which allows her to cut loose and fully inhabit the psyche of the extraordinary adventuress.
After the family’s arrival in Africa in 1904, Beryl’s mother abandons them and returns to Britain. With her father devoted to horse training and farming, Beryl is free to befriend the local Kipsigi tribe, learn Swahili and bond with a young boy named Kibii. McLain beautifully describes how they become close while exploring the countryside together: “I grew as tall as Kibii and then taller, running just as swiftly through the tall gold grasses, our feet floured with dust. Kibii and I often went out walking into the dark, past the fresh scythed grass that marked the edge of our farm and the damp higher grasses that brushed wetness up to our hips, past the Green Hill, and the edge of the forest, which took us in and in.”
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McLain excels at growing our sympathy for this untamed girl, whose idyllic childhood riding horses is interrupted when her father brings home a housekeeper to “domesticate” her and eventually sends her to school in Nairobi: “Over the next two and a half years I did my best at school — though my best was hardly a scratch at it. I ran away half-a-dozen times, once hiding in a pig hole for three days.”
Sadly, the farm’s increasing debts lead to her father’s bankruptcy and Beryl being married off to a neighboring farmer, Jock Purves. McLain doesn’t glamorize colonial life or the realities for a girl marrying at the age of 16: “At the church, I walked on his arm, keeping my eyes on Jock to hold me in place, as if I were going into battle with him. ... until my heart began to gallop. I worried that everyone could hear it, that they all knew or guessed that I had no love for this man.”
Even with a less-than-happy marriage, McLain’s tempestuous heroine counts among her family friends Lord Delamere, landowner and leader of Kenyan society, who agrees to hire her as a horse trainer. The writer could hardly have chosen a more fascinating cast of characters, including Baroness Karen Blixen (author of Out of Africa), sophisticated Berkeley Cole, and aristocratic safari guide Denys Finch-Hatton, Blixen’s lover and an absolute magnet for women.
As Beryl becomes friends with Karen while at the same time pursuing Denys, McLain gives her protagonist just the right dose of intelligence and self-awareness: “Karen would have died a dozen times to know I was at Mbagathi under the holey roof, in her lover’s arms, while she was away in Demark,” Beryl admits, “but I couldn’t think of that, or of her. If I did, I couldn’t have any of it, and that would be so much worse.”
Circling the Sun chronicles Beryl’s divorce, remarriage, racetrack triumphs, family tragedies, early flying lessons and affairs with an ease that can almost make you forget it’s historical fiction. McLain succeeds in bringing the past to life, and by the last pages, readers will hate to say goodbye to such an irresistible narrator. Fortunately, they can pick up Beryl Markham’s own splendid memoir, West with the Night, and continue her adventures.
Laura Albritton is a writer in Miami.