Sunday, November 15, 2015

Staff Review: Circling the Sun by Paula McLain

Circling the Sun is an exhilarating novel -- author Paula McLain has done it again. Her second book, The Paris Wife, published in 2011, told the novelized story of Ernest Hemingway's ill-fated first marriage, to Hadley Richardson, a story that played out among the brilliant ex-pat community known as the Lost Generation in Paris in the 1920s. The Paris Wife quickly became a bestseller.
This time round, McLain tackles the life of aviator Beryl Markham, who told her story herself in her marvelous memoir West with the Night, a book that Hemingway, incidentally, referred to as "bloody wonderful." 

Beryl Markham was born in England in 1902 and moved to Kenya (then British East Africa) as a tiny girl. Her mother was unable to handle life in Africa and soon fled with Beryl's older brother, leaving Beryl in her father's care for good. This unusual and tragic abandonment had a silver lining: it seems to have liberated Beryl from most of the rigid restrictions and tiresome conventions placed upon girls in affluent British families. Instead Beryl literally ran wild, which makes for one invigorating story.

When small, Beryl played freely in the African wilderness with her close friend Kibii of the Kipsigis tribe and received almost no formal education. She hunted warthogs barefoot with a spear, attended tribal dances, and was mauled by a lion. Her father bred and trained horses at their farm in Kenya, and horses became Beryl's passion too. Before she was 20, she became the first licensed female racehorse trainer in Kenya, and at age 34 she became the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic and the first person to do so nonstop east to west.

Have I mentioned yet that Beryl was also beautiful and loved to party? She hobnobbed with all the British colonials, including the uber-hedonistic Happy Valley set, whose drinking, drug use, and promiscuity have become the stuff of legend. Beryl herself married three times, disastrously, and had countless lovers throughout her life. The love of her life was Denys Finch Hatton, the aristocratic big-game hunter and not-so-secret paramour of the writer Isak Dineson (played by Meryl Streep to Robert Redford's Finch Hatton in the 1985 film Out of Africa).

This review cannot even begin to describe the adventurous, ambitious life of Beryl Markham. My only quibble with the novel is that it airbrushes some of Beryl's less admirable qualities. In real life she suffered for them though: she was often embroiled in scandal, she never received her due acclaim, and her final days saw her living in poverty. My caveat to readers is that references to safaris, lion hunting, ivory expeditions -- indeed to so many things decadent, exploitative, and colonial -- can be hard to take. But this was the (waning) age of imperialism and of the Great White Hunter (in the U.S. Teddy Roosevelt had recently been president) and it must have seemed at the time that Brittania still ruled and that Africa's wildlife was endless.

~Ann, Adult Services

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