Circling the sun: review

Circling the Sun (NetGalley)
Paula McLain
Ballantine Books

There was a time when I thought I was born in the wrong time and place–a time when I dreamed I was meant to stand on the wide savanna scanning the horizon, when I thought I might have my own antelope calf as a pet and sit on the veranda of a house that nestled at the foot of a mountain.

I read Isak Dinesan’s Out of Africa (and saw the movie, too, but it wasn’t nearly so good) and all of Elsbeth Huxley’s books (the best being The Flame Trees of Thika and this time the Masterpiece Theater production was nearly as good!), and Beryl Markham’s West With the Night. The sad thing is I read them all in a period of several months and so keeping the women and their experiences separate is nearly impossible these thirty years later. Instead, I have colorful blur of colonial Kenya in my mind’s eye.

Writer Paula McLain, best known for The Paris Wife, writes about the life of Beryl Markham, who, in her eighties, Circling the sunpublished her autobiography–that West With the Night I read so many years ago. Because of my reading muddle, the only thing I could remember about Markham was her accomplishment as an aviator—but Circling the Sun gives us much more than that.

Beryl Clutterbuck had a childhood marked by a sort of wild freedom that we really can’t relate to today. Her father moved the family from England to Kenya to farm and train horses. But Beryl’s mother couldn’t take the rough life and she left the family and returned to England before Beryl was six. After that, her father pretty much left Beryl to her own devices. She had a roof over her head, food in her belly, plenty of native friends to play with, animals galore, and at least one neighbor, Lady D, who tried to mother her as best she could. Beryl was Lakwet, “a very little girl”, living in wild and wonderful Africa.

All that changed when Beryl was nearly twelve and an evil step-mother (of sorts) entered the picture. Mrs. Orchardson (first introduced as the new housekeeper) expected Beryl to wear shoes and take lessons. No more killing snakes or hunting warthogs. English clothes, not her Kenyan shuka.  Beryl is finally packed off to a girl’s school in Nairobi for a little bit of book learning and (hopefully) a lot of taming.

When Beryl turned fifteen, her father lost their beloved ranch Green Hills. She made a disastrous marriage and, in order to deal with the fall out of that, began her journey towards independence: training to become the first female horse trainer in Kenya.

While Beryl succeeded in her professional life, her personal life was another story—hearth and home would not come easy for her. There was that first marriage. An affair or two. An abortion. Another marriage. A son. A rumored affair with royalty. And all the while her greatest love was just out of reach. McLain gives the impression that colonial Africa was very much a place where staid English men and women could throw off the strictures of polite society and live and love more freely–but where a double standard was still in place when it came to looking away from the “indiscretions” of women.

For me, the novel went on too long in those years between Beryl’s early success as a horse trainer and her life as an aviator, which, surprisingly, filled little of the book.

But I enjoyed Circling the Sun in a special way since it gave me a peek into a world I had once loved so much.

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