Review: Circling the Sun

Circling the Sun by Paula McLain

Ballentine Books, 2015.  Hardcover, 384 pages.Cover: Circling the Sun

Written from the lead heroine’s perceptive, this poetic and elegantly written novel is not soon to be forgotten.  Beryl Markham, nee Clutterbuck, grew up in the wilds of Africa on her father’s horse farm.  Once her mother and brother abandoned her and her father in Africa to return to England when Beryl was four, Beryl grew up free of social constrictions.  Her father allowed her to run freely, often with her lifelong native friend Kibii.  She wore pants, not dresses; rode astride; and scoffed at a classroom education.  These experiences only made Beryl stronger.

When her father’s farm faced financial difficulties, Beryl first married to stay in her beloved Ngong.  However, this did not work out and Beryl traveled to join a family friend in order to study for her horse training certification.  This led to the core of the novel.  It is during this time that Beryl discovers herself and makes friends to last a life time.  Two of particular of importance were Karen Blixen and Denys Finch Hatton.  The former operated a coffee plantation while the latter served as a big game hunter.  Together all three formed a complicated love triangle.  Throughout readers will also see how Beryl made her way in a man’s world of horse racing, often facing and finding ways to overcome prejudice.

Reading this little gem made me desire to go on an African safari just to experience what Beryl had.  Sadly, I will probably never be able to afford it.   Also, the land is not as unspoiled as it was 90+ years ago.  The book was also heartfelt as the reader felt each of Beryl’s struggles and desires, especially when she could not have what or whom she loved (the title is a play on a particular event in the book, with full reveal near the novel’s end).

However, despite my love for this book, I have two complaints.  First, with all the places mentioned (and not all still in existence today) a map somewhere in the novel would have been very helpful.  Second, was that Beryl’s flying career was mostly glanced over at the end when she was a true aviation pioneer.  Still, her early life, love life, and horse-training career made for a delight to read.

Also, the day after I finished his book I went to my local used book store and bought a copy of Beryl Markham’s autobiography West with the Night.  After reading the fiction and the afterward (and ARC publisher’s note), I thought I needed to read the many events described in Markham’s own words.  Especially with all the praise given to her writing, including by Ernest Hemingway!  The purchase was worth every penny!  I highly recommend it as well; it needs to be reprinted (it’s been out of print since the early 1980s).

My review is based on an advance reader’s copy from Penguin Random House’s Library Marketing Division.  It will be released tomorrow, 7/28/15.

Does Circling the Sun sound like a novel you would read?  Do you have any other titles on life in Colonial Africa to share?  One mentioned in the afterward was the true story Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen’s pen name), which is also partly fictionalized in this novel.

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