This review is based on an Advanced Reading Copy (ARC) from NetGalley to me:
I just finished reading Circling the Sun, written by Paula McLain – the author of The Paris Wife. Circling the Sun, published by Random House Publishing Group – Ballantine Books with a release date of early to mid July 2015, is based on the life of Beryl Markham (1902 – 1986).
This historical novel begins with Markham’s childhood at age four and continues to when Markham is in her early twenties. This situates McLain’s focus in the book between 1912 to the early 1920s. McLain admits to being “hijacked” by Markham’s life – and I believe her: Circling the Sun is a tremendous book that had me riveted, from beginning to end.
McLain includes contextualized accounts of Markham’s life as a horse trainer, her continued search for independence during a time when women were just not allowed to participate in work – and lives – considered suitable for men only, and her success at being the first woman to fly solo from Abingdon, England to New York (with her first ‘stop’ in Nova Scotia.). Markham was “the first woman to cross the Atlantic east-to-west solo and the first person to make it from England to North America non-stop” in 1936.
Markham’s life was unique, growing up ‘motherless’ in Africa and running wild, with no one but her father to oversee her. In Markham’s life, it was more as if she were an oversight than overseen. This portion of the book allows the reader to see what went into making Beryl Markham – and how and why she responded to challenges in her life as she did.
There is nothing commonplace or traditional about Markham’s upbringing, and it was a challenge to me, as she became older, to accept how she was treated by her father and others. It is easy to see how the title of the book fits in with Markham’s life story: Choosing to circle the sun seems a dangerous route to take…
as one could easily be burned. While I won’t give away the details, McLain does an excellent job of showing Markham’s challenges and choices.
In fact, McLain does a superb job of developing her characters, from Markham to Karen Blixen (Isak Dinesen), to Denys Finch Hatton: Karen Blixen (pen name Isak Dinesen, who wrote Out of Africa and Babette’s Feast) lived in Kenya from approximately 1914 to the early 1930s and Denys Finch Hatton was a game hunter who had a relationship with Blixen in the late 1920s.
Markham’s friendship with Blixen and love affair with Hatton play a major part of Circling the Sun yet does not overwhelm McLain’s story of Markham. In fact, McLain does a very sound job of balancing both the general and specific of Markham’s life within the novel. The triangle among Blixen, Finch, and Markham is a serious part of Markham’s life and should be delved into, and McLain does this very well.
McLain seems to be focusing on strong women in her latest books. In The Paris Wife, she portrayed Hemingway’s wife, Hadley Richardson. Unlike some authors, McLain goes to the source – the real voices of the characters themselves – through research. Her work of putting it together into a story that draws in and keeps the reader moving with her – is a gift.
Referring to The Paris Wife, McLain states that “she didn’t want to write yet another biography about Richardson [Hemingway’s first wife], but she wanted instead to go deeper; to imagine what Richardson’s life in Paris was like and what she was thinking as she moved through the circle of artist and intellectuals that the young couple met there.” McLain has done this again in Circling the Sun, where she situates Markham within context and culture of Kenya in the early 1900s.
I was surprised to find out that McLain is a poet – but when I did, it explained the use of language by her. While her story reads objectively, her use of poetic language led me to find tender connections with the more tremulous aspects of the story: The life of Markham was non-traditional in that Markham was not really supervised as a child, she did not attend school, and she spent most of her time with a youth from the Kipsigi group of Kenya.
According to McLain, the Kipsigi people bore hardship without complaint and showed great courage. Consequently, Markham’s normal mode of expression seemed consistently to be stoic, at least as portrayed by McLain. In spite of this – or perhaps as a way to balance this – McLain infuses her writing with a strong poetic bent, allowing the reader to pause from bearing Markham’s burdens with her – to be able to enjoy and even romanticize a bit about Kenya. Here is one example of Markham’s voice through McLain:
This was certain: I belonged on the farm and in the bush. I was part of the thorn trees and the high jutting escarpment, the bruised-looking hills thick with vegetation, the deep folds between the hills, and the high cornlike grasses. I had come alive here, as if I’d been given a second birth, and a truer one (Loc 228-2).
McLain’s poetic style helps us to see Kenya as Markham sees it:
Lake Nakuru with its shimmering pink flesh of flamingos…”( Loc 121-Prologue).
The bell sounded, and when the barrier flew up, the horses broke in a hiccup of colour and movement, twelve singular animals blurred and transposed (Loc 1564-19).
Even aside from Markham’s own voice within the story, McLain infuses the novel with lyrical language that will surely engage the reader. For example, when McLain speaks of Markham’s time flying across the Atlantic, she describes the plane:
The constant sobbing of the engine doing the work it was built for (Loc 92-Prologue).
It is as if part of McLain takes a scythe to the lives of her characters but pauses, at times, to let us know that the heart blood of these same people is fed by all the good and bad of Africa’s skin. Life in Kenya was hard for those who worked with the land and/or with horses (attending horse races was a favorite pastime), farming was difficult and tedious, good weather could not be counted on, and people sometimes worked years, decades, only to lose out in the end.
Through her unique use and play of language, McLain allows us to see Kenya as Markham saw and lived it – with a realistic awareness and a love so deep that hardships were beautiful – because they were part of what made Kenya – Kenya.
The only negative comment I have for this book is in regard to the life of Markham herself…the seemingly never-ending struggles through which she persevered. It wore down on me a bit, in spite of Markham’s own determination and ability to work through every aspect of her life. Markham wrote a book, herself, on her own life, West with the Night, in 1942 when she was forty years old. but it seems the book was not a best seller and eventually went out of print. For readers interested in more about Beryl Markham, her memoir is now easily available.
(Paula McLain had her poetry collections published by my undergraduate alma mater, Western Michigan University. She received her MFA in poetry from the University of Michigan and lives with her family in Cleveland, OH.)
 “1936 – First woman pilot to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean (east to west) – Beryl Markham (England).” Celebrate 100 Years of Licensed Women Pilots. Centennial of Women Pilots, 2009-2010. Web. 20 June 2015. <http://www.centennialofwomenpilots.com/node/56>.
 Neary, Lynn. “‘The Paris Wife’ Dives Into Hemingway’s First Big Love.” NPR Books. NPR, 1 Mar. 2011. Web. 20 June 2015. <http://www.npr.org/2011/03/01/134132944/the-paris-wife-dives-into-hemingways-first-big-love>.
Check out Circling the Sun and give it a read!
Guest review contributed by Inklings of a Bookworm. As an avid teacher, reader, and poet, this blogger lends a keen eye to what she reviews. Check out her guidelines page on her favorite genres to review.