A Different Picture of Beryl Markham: Circling the Sun by Paula McLain

23995231I have no doubt that Circling the Sun, McLain’s second novel, will be as successful as her first one, The Paris Wife. McLain is a very skilled writer, and the subject of this book is Beryl Markham, a fascinating woman who will hopefully receive renewed attention as people read about her.

Beryl grew up in Kenya, where her father built a horse farm. Her mother returned to England with her little brother when Beryl was still very young, leaving her feeling abandoned but free to grow up with few restrictions. She learned how to hunt with the locals, helped her father train race horses, and very rarely saw the inside of a school. Her father was a man of few words who hardly ever explained anything to Beryl, so in many ways she was incredibly naïve and unprepared for life among the Happy Valley set, a group of expats who came to Kenya to make a fortune, escape social restrictions in Europe, or simply lead a life of leisure and excess.

Her father’s farm failed, and so did Beryl’s first marriage. But this led to her becoming the first female licensed horse trainer in Kenya—which was the first, but not the last, time she went against conventions, traditions, and expectations. The book follows Beryl through her friendship with Tania Blixen and Denys Finch-Hatton, her second marriage to Mansfield Markham, and the birth of her son, who remained in England when Beryl returned to Kenya, where she eventually got her pilot’s license. The book ends with her (barely) successful crossing of the Atlantic ocean from east to west, another first in history.

Not too long ago, I read Beryl Markham’s memoir, West With the Night, which I enjoyed immensely. I made it a point to read it before Circling the Sun, and I was fully aware that it would affect my reading of McLain’s book. It didn’t come as a surprise to realize that I imagined Beryl differently than McLain did. I can’t and don’t want to judge whether one picture of her is any more valid than the other, especially since my idea of Beryl is based solely on her own words. But I definitely thought of her as a little more “bad-ass” as and with fewer scruples than she is depicted in Circling the Sun.

When I read West With the Night, I got the impression that racing horses and flying airplanes were the two great passions of Beryl’s life. She seemed to thrive on the unconventional aspects of her life, unconcerned with offending anyone. I have no doubt that there was heartbreak in Beryl’s life—we all strive for love and acceptance in our lives. But I’m not sure how much that influenced the decisions she made, especially regarding her husbands and son. Also, considering that Beryl grew up motherless, close to the Masai tribe, and without any example of a well-functioning, European-style family unit, I didn’t get the sense that she ever had any great desire for such a family. This is really where my picture of Beryl differs from McLain’s version. In Circling the Sun, Beryl—despite straining against social conventions—often felt a little too traditional to me.

But even though my Beryl didn’t mesh all the way with McLain’s Beryl, I still got completely immersed in reading Circling the Sun. While I never completely forgot that this was a fictional account, by the time I reached the halfway-point of the novel, I could hardly put it down.

*I received a copy of this book from the publisher.

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9 comments

  1. I liked this almost as much as The Paris Wife. I found myself admiring Beryl for the most part, yet being frustrated with her stubborn willfulness. Yet, how could she be so brave and adventurous and bold without a little strong will thrown in the mix?

  2. I read West with the Night some years ago and loved it. Funnily enough I have it in mind to re-read next month. Not sure how I feel about this novel, it does sound very readable but for now maybe I will stick to Beryl on her own words.

  3. I really enjoyed your review of West with the Night, so it’s interesting to see how you felt about this book in comparison. Overall, Beryl’s story still sounds full of adventure and fascinating.

    • It was definitely interesting to read; this book filled some holes in Beryl’s book (e.g., what happened to her mother). This one also focuses more on her work with horses, whereas her memoir talks a lot more about her flying. I liked both books, but I would pick the memoir over the fictional account.

  4. Oooh – now you’ve made me want to read her memoir! I didn’t think Beryl felt conventional at all in Circling the Sun…but I didn’t have the memoir as a comparison. I’ll be posting my review of Circling the Sun on Thursday.

    • This book filled a few holes left by the memoir. For example, Beryl Markham never once mentions her mother, so I actually thought she had died. The memoir talks a lot more about her flying, too, which I found fascinating. It’s definitely worth reading. I’ll be looking for your review on Thursday!

  5. “By the time I reached the halfway-point of YOUR REVIEW…., I could hardly put it down.”
    Sounds like a great read. Sometimes I wonder… adventurous I can understand, but leaving your child in England an returning to Kenya, that must be difficult for a mother. Or in her case perhaps not, I’ll have to read more about her!

    • Thank you, Nancy. Whether she liked being a mother or not, I’m sure it was a difficult decision to leave England without her child, especially since she felt so abandoned years earlier when *her* mother left Kenya without her. Beryl Markham is quite an interesting person, and I enjoyed reading her memoir. I think I’ll look for her biography. I can’t remember the author right now, but it got good reviews.

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