Book Review: CIRCLING THE SUN by Paula McLain
Ballantine Books/Penguin Random House, Publication Date: July 28, 2015
Hardcover ISBN 978-0345534187
Paula McLain’s first literary historical novel, The Paris Wife, was embraced by readers—receiving good reviews and a lot of word-of-mouth recommendations-- and it became a New York Times bestseller when published in 2011. She wrote the story of Hadley Richardson, Ernest Hemingway’s first wife, and of their life and literary circle in Paris in the 1920’s.
Her new novel CIRCLING THE SUN is about another woman from the earlier part of the 20th-century: Beryl Markham. Markham is best known as the first woman solo pilot to fly the Atlantic from west to east (in 21 hours, 35 minutes, from England on September 4, 1936 to Nova Scotia on September 5, 1936). Markham’s memoir West With The Night was published in 1942. In Paula McLain’s Author’s Note for Circling The Sun she writes:
“[West With The Night] sold only modestly, though many believed it deserved accolades, including Ernest Hemingway, who said, in a letter to his editor, Maxwell Perkins, ‘Did you read Beryl Markham’s book…she has written so well that I was completely ashamed of myself as a writer…it really is a bloody wonderful book.’”
I think McLain has written “a bloody wonderful book.”
Beryl Markham led a fascinating but very complex and difficult life. McLain deftly and sensitively reveals Beryl the girl and the woman. The novel is written in the first-person narrative, and allows the reader to become quite intimate with Markham, from the age four to twenty four. Born Beryl Clutterbuck in England in 1902, she moved with her family to British Colonial Africa (now Kenya) because her father Robert, a horse trainer, purchased a farm where he could breed and train race horses. Beryl’s mother returned to England just a few years later with Beryl’s brother. Beryl was left to basically raise herself. She loved horses as much if not more than her father, and she loved Kenya. She was part of the ex-pat white community, but her closest friend from childhood was a Kibii boy who became a morani (warrior).
My first point of reference for early 20th-century colonial Africa was Sydney Pollack's Oscar Award-Winning film Out of Africa, released in 1985. The film, adapted from Judith Thurman’s biography of Karen Blixen, is a luscious vision of Kenya, its magnificent landscape, the native people, and, of course, the romance between Karen Blixen and Denys Finch Hatton. Beryl Markham was turned into some character named Felicity. Like so many others, I love this film, but I know that this was not the most accurate portrayal of the time and setting. I much prefer the truth—that Denys Finch Hatton had a complex and tumultuous relationship with Karen Blixen, and he also had a love affair with Beryl Markham, who matched him in being a free spirit, and very comfortable with the wild and with animals. Denys introduced Beryl to aviation, because the Africa they both loved so fiercely was already disappearing. The insufficient wildlife conservation we have today began its downward slope a century ago. Beryl became Africa's first woman licensed professional pilot.
Beryl was beautiful, highly intelligent, inquisitive, strong, hardworking and independent. She faced adversity—and there was quite a lot of that in her life-- head on, endured, and thrived. McLain has written a true literary historical fiction novel in both senses of the “literary.” Beryl did become a literary figure, and gained renown for many achievements. The first-person narrative and McLain’s deceptively simple but rich writing style transported me to another time and another place, into another life. McLain tackles the oppression of women, feminist history, reproductive rights, the loose sexual mores and double-standard moral judgments of white society.
It was a privilege to spend a summer Saturday with Beryl Markham, who was far more remarkable than I ever could have expected. I am very grateful to Paula McLain for extending me this extraordinary pleasure as a reader. I shall be recommending Circling The Sun to friends and other readers as an essential and favorite historical fiction novel.
Thank you to Ballantine Books for loaning me an e-book copy of the novel through NetGalley.