Book Review Circling the Sun by Paula McLain About the Early Life of Beryl Markham Aviatrix & Author
Circling the Sun
The Childhood of Beryl Markham
Circling the Sun by Paula McLain is about the childhood and early adulthood of Beryl Clutterback Markham who was born in England, but shortly after, her family moved to British East Africa (Kenya) to establish a farm and a horse training business. Many of the characters will be familiar to readers and movie goers because many of the characters are the same people that author Karen Blixen wrote about in her memoir Out of Africa which was later made into the widely popular and beautiful film.
The prologue begins with a thrilling episode of Beryl piloting her airplane The Messinger in fierce weather conditions. When her engine loses power and Beryl is frantically trying to restart the engine, she recalls her life in Kenya.. While I anticipated reading the details of Beryl learning how to fly, Circling the Sun is more about about Beryl as a horse trainer. She got her horse training license at age 18, when women as trainers were almost unheard of. The subject of her desire to learn to fly isn't even mentioned until almost the end of the book which many readers find disappointing. However, Beryl's early life and relationships explain her constant need to excel.
The opening chapters set the tone of the development of Beryl's character and future relationships. Her mother returns to England taking her older brother with her, but leaves Beryl in the care of her father and members of the Kipsigis tribe who live and work on her father's farm. Beryl runs freely about the farm with her friend Kibii pretending that they will both become great warriors some day. Sadly, her mother does not remain in contact with her.
When Beryl's father brings a woman (Emma) to live with him, Beryl acts ugly to her and to a string of governesses that are hired, but Beryl resists all attempts to educate her and all things feminine. Her world revolves around the horses on the farm, but Emma continues to insist that Beryl will need to learn manners and dress like a woman to take her "proper" place in society.
Change comes in many forms. Kibii becomes a warrior and a gap between the childhood friends widens. Beryl's Dad is forced to sell the farm and leaves to train horses in Cape Town. Beryl makes a disastrous first marriage to Jock Purves at the age of sixteen to stay in close to their family's former farm. Far from wanting to be a wife, her ambition is to train race horses. Lord Delamere who has always been a friend of her father gives her a chance. Beryl becomes the first licensed racehorse trainer in Kenya which is worthy of admiration.
Beryl begins a series of disposable sexual relationships that continue during and in between her three marriages. Society in Kenya is pretty small during the 1920s, Beryl knows Karen Blixen and her ex-husband Blix, and she meets Denys Finch Hatton to whom she feels an immediate attraction. Denys is already "attached" to Karen who has been kind and generous to Beryl, but Beryl isn't about to let anything stop her from a relationship with Denys. She sees Denys as her soulmate because he is one of the untamed like Africa and herself and rejects permanent relationships as a threat to his freedom.. Denys returns again and again to Karen's home for the security of having a home, but continues to sneak around with Beryl. The affair with Denys sends Beryl to England for an abortion.
During her second marriage to the wealthy Markham, she has a son (Gervase) while they are in England. The author "glosses over" Beryl's affair with Prince Henry as part of her need to be free, but history records that the Royals took their affair quite seriously and made attempts to keep Prince Henry's name out of the divorce between Beryl and Markham. Markham offered her a generous divorce settlement. Again, the author tries to absolve Beryl's lack of mothering by writing that she showed him pictures of Africa the times she visited her son. History also records that Beryl did not attend his funeral when he died at age 42.
Beryl returned to Kenya and continued to sneak around with Denys until the plane he is piloting crashes killing him. Denys is buried on Karen's land. Beryl insisted that she was supposed to fly with Denys that day but didn't. She believed that he was coming home to be with her while Karen believed that he was coming home to her. The book is touted as a great love triangle, but while Karen remains admired by both Denys and Beryl, it is difficult to imagine Denys and Beryl other than as the self centered, irresponsible "free" people that they themselves claim to be.
The book wraps with Karen going home to Denmark, after her farm failed and Beryl improving her skills as a bush pilot. Several of Beryl's biographers agree that Beryl also had affairs with Tom Campbell Black who taught her to fly and with Antoine de Saint Exupery who is thought by many to have co-written West With the Night that Beryl wrote about her east to west solo flight.
A Few Questions which are Key to Understanding Circling the Sun
If you have read Out of Africa or seen the movie which Is Karen Blixen's account of life in Kenya and has many of the same characters, how do compare Beryl's and Karen's accounts?
Did the lack of parenting create the spirited girl that Beryl became?
Did you alternatively feel sympathy, admiration and disgust for Beryl?
Does the title fit and what does it mean?
Author Paula McLain
Author and Conclusion
Paula McLain was born in Fresno California in 1965. She was placed into the foster care system after being abandoned by both parents. Paula worked at a variety of jobs until she discovered her love of writing. Paula's mother also abandonded her as a small child. She received her MFA in poetry. She first wrote poetry and then went on to write Like Family: Growing Up in Other Peoples Houses, A Memoir about her time in the "system." She won the Random House Readers Circle Award for The Paris Wife about Ernest Hemmingway's first wife Hadley Richardson and the years they spent together in Paris as part of the "Lost Generation."
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