'Circling the Sun' takes readers on a flight with Beryl Markham

'Circling the Sun' by bestselling author Paula McLain ('The Paris Wife') elaborates on the life of another fascinating woman.

Circling the Sun By Paula McLain Random House 384 pp.

Beryl Markham isn’t a household name today, but she was once renowned as the first woman to fly across the Atlantic solo, and the first pilot to cross it from east to west (harder because it’s against the wind) – as well as for her scandal-inducing love life, including three marriages and a probable affair with Prince Harry, Duke of Gloucester. She’s a fascinating figure, a woman out of step with her times, alternately celebrated and reviled, who lived in relative poverty later in life until her 1942 memoir "West With the Night" was reissued, becoming a surprise bestseller in 1983. 

It’s little surprise, then, that Paula McLain, whose own bestseller "The Paris Wife" centered on Hadley Hemingway, first wife of Ernest, chose Markham as the heroine of her latest novel, Circling the Sun.

McLain’s book is not short on plot – but then neither was Markham’s life.

The novel begins with Beryl’s abandonment at four by her mother and follows her youth in Kenya to her pioneering 1936 flight at the age of 32. Along the way, she is mauled by a lion, marries at 16, loses her family farm, becomes a celebrated horse trainer (another first for a woman in Kenya), falls in love, has an abortion, acquires and loses husbands and fortunes, gives birth – and yes, learns to fly. 

What works best are the childhood sketches. In one episode, a foal whose birth young Beryl has been anticipating is found half-eaten by giant ants. In another, a neighboring nobleman’s tamed lion, Paddy, pounces on Beryl like a gazelle, taking a great bite out of her leg before being chased off with a whip. These events are straight from Markham’s life, as sketched in "West with the Night."

Yet where Markham excised husbands and lovers from her memoir, McLain puts them center stage. McLain’s main thread isn’t Beryl’s attraction to flight, but her love affair with Africa and love-triangle with that other famous lover of Africa, the author Karen Blixen (a.k.a., Isak Dinesen) and the apparently irresistible big-game hunter, Denys Finch Hatton.

This romanticization of the African continent and the famous lovers is where "Circling the Sun" falters. 

Much of the novel is spent with Beryl sighing over Denys and admiring Karen, to whom she is cast as a sort of antithesis  Beryl may desire Denys, but she recognizes his “true nature” as untamable, whereas Karen clings to him, trying to domesticate him. The novel is enamored with “wildness,” whether of the Kenyan landscape or Beryl herself. While there may be something to this characterization of Beryl, who grew up motherless, roaming her father’s farm and the Kipsigis tribal land, it spills into an exoticization of Africa and its people.

Beryl refers to “untamed Africa” and its “absolute wilderness,” and there’s no sign readers are meant to be critical of this view. Gone are politics or the possibility that the European colonizers were ever anything less than benevolent. "Circling the Sun" in this way feels more indebted to Dinesen’s memoir "Out of Africa."  Some images even mirror the film adaptation, like Denys playing Mozart on his gramophone or Beryl grasping the dirt at his grave but – unlike Karen – letting it go.

There are also too many male admirers telling Beryl how strong and brave she is for my taste, though in more of a nod to historical realism, these same men later punish her for her unconventionality.

McLain’s first-person narration can be limiting, as well. The lion episode in "West with the Night" is more vivid because Markham switches to the voice of her Sikh groom, Bishon Singh, for three full pages.

“I was very happy with the duty of carrying you back to this very bed, Beru, and of advising your father, who had gone to observe some of Bwana Elkington’s horses, that you had been moderately eaten by a large lion,” she records Singh saying. Whether Markham’s dialogue is real or invented, it almost makes you wish McLain had just stolen certain lines outright.

Markham’s own view of Africa was more complex than romantic. While she wasn’t wholly beyond the racism of her day, "West with the Night" at least shows some skepticism toward the European tendency to flatten out the place. “There are as many Africas as there are books about Africa,” Markham reflected. “Africa is mystic; it is wild; it is a sweltering inferno; it is a photographer’s paradise, a hunter’s Valhalla, an escapist’s Utopia; […] To a lot of people, as to myself it is just ‘home.’”

It's hard not to wish that McClain had given readers this larger and more nuanced view of Markham's world.

Elizabeth Toohey is an Assistant Professor of English at Queensborough Community College (CUNY) and a regular contributor.

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