Written by Lauryn Smith
Woman-behind-the-man books seem to be gaining popularity. Paula McLain is back with another, the historical fiction novel "Circling the Sun," in which she adheres to the story of Beryl Markham, a talented racehorse trainer and eventual record-setting aviator. A tale of courage, family, marriage, promiscuity and gossip, "Circling the Sun" is a well-written, intriguing tale of an impressive woman with a personality of questionable disposition.
McLain opens the book with a depiction of a harrowing portion of Beryl’s historic 1936 solo flight—an ultimately successful east to west flight from England to North America across the Atlantic Ocean. She then leads into a prolonged reflection of Beryl's life before returning once more to the opening scene. Throughout the bulk of the book, McLain illustrates Beryl’s exploration of her life choices and core memories.
Set in the 1920s in colonial Kenya, McLain exposes aspects of the protagonist’s youth that come to shape her character as an adult. Beryl is brought from England to a Kenyan farm as a child, is left by her mother (who after a short time in Kenya returns to England with Beryl’s younger brother), and is hence raised by her father and the local Kipsigis tribe. Members of this tribe call her Lakwet, a name that implies bravery and self-sufficiency, a name that implies a respect for and love of nature, a name that comes to act as the link between Beryl’s adult self and her younger one.
The financial stability of the farm slowly deteriorates, so much so that when Beryl reaches the age of 16, her father relocates to South Africa and she marries a neighbor in order to remain on the Kenyan soil she loves. Though her marriage is a disaster, she finds success working as a racehorse trainer. She gets licensed (one of the first females in Africa to do so) and experiments with extramarital relations in the meanwhile.
Embraced by Kenya’s close-knit bohemian British community as her accomplishments as a trainer cumulate, Beryl comes to know and have relations with the attractive, free-spirited, charismatic safari hunter and guide Denys Finch Hatton, the lover of an unhappily married friend, Karen Blixen. Beryl’s earthy wildness draws Denys in, even though the enterprising ladies’ man appears content returning to Karen time and time again.
The read is made enjoyable by the mix of details. There are components loud and exciting as well as ones emotional and introspective. However, the glimpse McLain offers into Beryl’s mind does not necessarily invoke compassion for her character. While surely meant to come across as fearless, Beryl at times comes across as detached. In spite of McLain’s efforts at demonstrating emotion, the “telling” rather than “showing” of such idiosyncrasies makes Beryl’s character come across somewhat flat.
This all is not to say that McLain is not talented with detail—quite the contrary. Her depictions of the Kenyan landscape are full and eloquent. Though at times bordering on flowery, the ornamented language works well to portray the way Beryl views the land on which she grew up and how it changes over time. When it comes to personality, however, this verbose style of writing makes Beryl seem romanticized.
Despite this, and though clearly flawed (prominently evidenced by her indiscrimination and some rash decisions), Beryl is a strong female character. She becomes a pioneer in the predominantly male-centric arena of horse training, a record-breaking aviatrix and eventually the author of "West with the Night." McLain excels in depicting Beryl as headstrong, independent and resilient, a model of the modern woman. In fact, "Circling the Sun" might actually be called inspirational—Beryl retains her work ethic and sense of self and learns the cost of freedom in the midst of dysfunctional relationships, all prior to turning 30.
All the same, "Circling the Sun" traverses the line of romance. Nearly each man Beryl encounters, including two heirs to the British throne, easily becomes enraptured by her for one reason or another. This aspect conflicts with the dislikable facets of Beryl's character yet allows the novel to appeal to fans of romance, not just those looking for strict literary historical fiction. There is a very strong emphasis on Beryl’s romantic relationships, which admittedly do impact her to a great extent. But at the same time, their representation leaves one wondering how the dynamics actually played out in the true version of Beryl’s life.
Regardless, McLain successfully stays true to the time period. She does not fall into the trap of imposing modern impulses, particularly when it comes to gender assumptions and modern ideals. The book is well-researched and accurately depicts Beryl’s strong, stable personality.
Those who enjoy reading about strong female characters and those with a penchant for learning about colonial Africa will surely enjoy "Circling the Sun." With themes of family, friendship and bravery, the novel challenges readers’ perspectives, particularly due to the unconventionality of a figure who is not directly charming.
A big thank you to Random House for the advanced reader’s edition!
Title: Circling the Sun
Author: Paula McLain
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Publication date: July 28, 2015
Page count: 384
List price: $28
Nominations: 2015 Goodreads Choice Award Nominee for Historical Fiction
Book type: Goodreads Giveaway
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