As a young girl, Beryl Markham was brought to Kenya from Britain by parents dreaming of a new life. For her mother, the dream quickly turned sour, and she returned home; Beryl was brought up by her father, who switched between indulgence and heavy-handed authority, allowing her first to run wild on their farm, then incarcerating her in the classroom. The scourge of governesses and serial absconder from boarding school, by the age of sixteen Beryl had been catapulted into a disastrous marriage - but it was in facing up to this reality that she took charge of her own destiny. Scandalizing high society with her errant behaviour, she left her husband and became the first woman ever to hold a professional racehorse trainer's licence. After falling in with the notoriously hedonistic and gin-soaked Happy Valley set, Beryl soon became embroiled in a complex love triangle with the writer Karen Blixen and big game-hunter Denys Finch Hatton (immortalized in Blixen's memoir Out of Africa). It was this unhappy affair which set tragedy in motion, while awakening Beryl to her truest self, and to her fate: to fly.
Prior to reading Circling the Sun I had never read anything by Paula McLain nor heard of Beryl Markham. Of course I had heard of the film Out of Africa and its story but I've never actually got around to watching it and Karen Blixen features a lot throughout this book and her lover Denys Finch Hattan. Admittedly it was the cover that first drew me to this book and on further inspection the blurb proved just as enticing. I had read one or two books set in Africa before and thoroughly enjoyed them and only wish there were more books set there. Circling the Sun is an extremely well written book, such beautiful writing that stops you in your tracks and makes you want to savour every word of such powerful evocative descriptions, thoughts and opinions. For the most part this really was an excellent read, I love history and am so glad I know an awful lot more about an incredible woman ahead of her time in some ways but in others still beholden to what society at the time made women conform to. The first half of the novel was really good but I found after that there was lots of repetition and so many characters coming and going that honestly at some points I was beginning to lose track. I understand writing a fictional account of a real life person must have been very difficult and the author has done her research well but the book could have done without some parts stretching for endless chapters when it could have been explained in one.
The prologue alone is very powerful, it is only several pages but the descriptions of a pilot attempting a flight are marvellous and draw you into the story immediately. The fear, danger and excitement just ooze from the page. We don't read anything else in relation to flying until the very last chapters and throughout the book I was waiting and waiting to read more of this. Beryl Markham was a remarkable women to travel solo across the Atlantic and I found this aspect of her life wasn't given enough attention compared to all we had read about in her professional horse training career and all her loves and loses. Part one of the book was definitely the best it follows Beryl as she grows up on her fathers horse farm Green Hills deep in the countryside of British East Africa (which later became Kenya). I felt I was right there savouring the views Beryl wakes up to and explores every day. You could feel the heat and the danger that lurks around every corner. Beryl's mother had upped and returned to England when she was only five taking her older brother Dickie with her so for the most part she grew up without a mother figure and was let roam free and to form bonds with the local Kipsigis clan living on the land. The friendship she forms with a young boy will remain with her for her life. With the arrival of Mrs. Orchardson attempts are made to tame Beryl but the spirit and heart of Africa has made its mark firmly on Beryl and her love of horses, nature and everything that surrounds her make her stronger and uncontrollable. She is a woman who knows what she wants and will do anything to achieve it.
With the arrival of World War One Beryl's life changed forever and soon her father finds himself bankrupt due to drought and mismanagement of money and with it Beryl's idyllic childhood is shattered. This is where the book really got going, I had loved reading about Beryl growing up in Africa. It gave us a feel for her true personality and explained why she acted in a certain way but the story needed to move on and it did following her over several years as she navigates life without Green Hills but all the time her love of horses is firmly within her sights. At 16 Beryl marries Jock Purves an ex soldier who had been given land as part of his settlement pension from the army. I was really split on this, it's obvious she doesn't love Jock and is really only doing it because it will enable her to stay where she feels connected to the land. Sixteen is so young but then maybe she is wiser than her years and realises she wouldn't be able to build herself the life she wanted and deep in her soul needed without this 'agreement'. Marrying Jock allows her to keep some of her beloved horses. But the marriage was always destined for disaster and Beryl causes a major scandal in society when she leaves Jock to work for Delamere in order to get her horse training licence but she is still beholden to Jock as he will not giver her a divorce.
From here on the rest of the book seemed to be all about Beryl doing well training horses and winning races and encountering Karen Blixen and Denys Finch Hattan who she develops a deep communication with. The book lost its way as it seemed to become quite muddled to me. There were endless affairs from English people within the colony and I never knew who was going out with you or who was supposed to be married. Every woman seemed to be with any man except her husband. Did they have nothing else to do with their lives despite living in such a beautiful country? No one seemed happy and Beryl herself was not immune to more than the odd affair or two. This highlighted that in no way was she perfect and had numerous faults. She was knocked down and left with nothing so many times but she shook herself off and attempted to start over again. On the romance side I think she was incredibly selfish and seemed to navigate to whatever man could help her further her career. At the end of the day she did have to rely on people who had the money and the one true person whom she loved was out of reach. God I just wish she had left him alone as I truly felt for the person their encounters were doing the damage too. The remainder of the book did seem to drag with too much repetition and I found myself resenting Beryl for some of her actions particularly what she does in England.
Paula McLain does a fantastic job of portraying the incredible ups and downs in the life of Beryl Markham. She has brought a character back into the public consciousness who seems to have been forgotten in history. It's fantastic that she is not painted in a positive life the entire time and her faults are clearly shown for the reader to make up their own mind about her. Yes it was an amazing feat to become the first woman in Africa to hold a licence for both horse training and as a pilot not to mention her solo flight across the Atlantic but at times her romantic entanglements over shadowed her achievements in this book. Parts of the book became too focused on affairs and loves and loss a better balance needed to be achieved. Also what was going on historically at the time in Africa was given very short shrift with just paragraphs here and there updating us as to the war or the struggle for independence etc. It was as if it was only English people living in the colony and nice as it was to read of their interactions and life in Africa some of the bigger issues should have been given more attention. I admire everything Beryl Markham achieved in her life but I can't say I really liked her as a person apart from when she is growing up in part one. She changes completely from part two onwards and so did my opinion of her and her actions. Fans of historical fiction will thoroughly enjoy this book as it is a different slant using a real life person as a focus for the book. It was different from what I was expecting and overall I did like it but some of its faults outweighed the positives. It's still a fascinating, insightful read but maybe not my favourite of the year so far.
I'd like to thank Emma for this review for Circling the Sun which we received from the publisher via NetGalley.