Paula McClain established herself as a successful novelist with her runaway hit THE PARIS WIFE a few years ago. She returns with another historical novel based on a real woman in CIRCLING THE SUN, the fictionalized account of Beryl Markham, who set a world record flying solo from England to North America. Most of the book focuses, not on that historic flight, but on Beryl's life in Africa in the early twentieth century. Raised by her father on their horse ranch after her mother and brother fled back to England, Beryl (then only 4 years old) grew up a tom boy who played and hunted with the Kip natives, especially one boy called Kibii. As a teen, Beryl excelled at both riding and training horses. In the 1940's Beryl, herself wrote an autobiography WEST WITH THE NIGHT, which was reissued in the 1980s and enjoyed a wide readership. Our book club read WEST WITH THE NIGHT when we first formed 8 or 9 years ago, and it is one of the books that has stayed with me. Although not an easy read, it clearly showed Beryl's love of nature and also provided a unique look into the British Empire's presence in Africa. It is because of Beryl's own writing that I was drawn to a novelization of her life.
McClain has tried to keep both the natural and social elements in the novel, while making Beryl's rocky life the focal point. On her own at 17, Beryl innocently enters into a marriage with a man who quickly turns abusive and controlling. Soon Beryl leaves to train horses and live on her own. Two affairs quickly follow, one with Denys Finch Hatton, who will remain the only man she truly loved. She, Denys, and Karen Blixen were part of a love triangle for several years; Karen Blixen wrote the famous OUT OF AFRICA under the name Isak Dinesen after living in Africa for more than twenty years. While Beryl's choices and lifestyle are not ones I admire, it is clear that many of her decisions, good and bad, were driven by the skewed society that the Brits had created in Africa. Some people worked very hard for decades to only lose all they had, while others lived workfree, decadent and indulgent lives. Silly social rules left by an old, pre-WWI England often hindered life. Parts of the background story remind of Fitzgerald's THE GREAT GATSBY or the recent PBS series INDIAN SUMMERS (which takes us into another part of the British Empire in the early twentieth century). Despite her errors in men, Markham clearly was a strong woman who made her mark by being strong. CIRCLING THE SUN has been optioned for a movie, and I can see that Hollywood will enjoy making her a hero, perhaps too much of one. This is the first book I have read by McClain, but I am sure I will return to her writings again.