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‘Circling the Sun,’ by Paula McLain (with references to ‘West with the Night,’ by Beryl Markham)

Post Date: October 24, 2015 by josiemounsey

The opening chapter of McLain’s fictionalised version of the unconventional life and loves of the pioneering aviator and racehorse trainer, Beryl Markham, epitomises the sense of impending doom that dogged Markham all her life.  In 1936, attempting to be the first woman to fly solo non-stop across the Atlantic from East to West, she struggles to restart her Vega Gull aircraft as it plummets toward the churning ocean below.  Her extraordinary life was full of such moments, be it surviving a childhood attack by a friend’s so-called friendly lion, or a lurking mamba waiting to strike.


‘Circling the Sun’ focuses on Markham’s early life in Kenya (then British East Africa).  Abandoned by her mother and brought up by her racehorse-trainer father and the local Kipsigis tribe, she learnt to throw a spear and hunt warthogs, and developed a love of the tribe’s languages and the land.  Following the loss of her father’s farm, she rushed headlong into an early, disastrous marriage, but through the determination and tenacity which depicted most of her life, at age 18 became the youngest and only female licensed racehorse trainer in Kenya.


Even in the ‘Happy Valley’ crowd of decadent, cocaine-snorting, wife-swapping, colourful eccentrics, that made up the ex-pat community in colonial Kenya, the beautiful blonde-haired, blue-eyed, Markham was seen as a determined non-conformist.  Her life was sprinkled with lovers, the most scandalous of which was an alleged affair with Prince Henry, Duke of Gloucester, the son of George V.  But, most readers will remember her as part of the love triangle entangling Baroness Karen Blixen and the aristocratic big-game hunter, Denys Finch Hatton.  In the movie ‘Out of Africa,’ based on Blixen’s memoir, Markham features only as the often outspoken, horse-loving woman named Felicity!


Interestingly, in Markham’s own memoir ‘West with the Night,’ none of her three marriages or many dalliances warrant a mention, and Finch Hatton appears only as the big-game hunter who Markham assisted with his safaris by scouting herds of elephants from the air.  Some critics doubt whether Markham is the true author of her memoir, attributing the work to her third husband, the ghost writer and journalist, Raoul Schumacher – which might account for the lack of romantic entanglements in the narrative.  But, whoever penned the manuscript, it is beautifully written, as evidenced by the description of the aftermath of a night time landing at a narrow airstrip in the wilderness:


‘The air was heavy, with life gone out of it.  Men’s voices came from across the runway, sounding, after the deep drone of the plane, like the thin bleating of reed pipes or like the fluted whispers of a bamboo forest.’  (West with the Night, p.18.)


In contrast, McLain’s narrative sometimes lapses into ‘syrupy’ sentimentality, diminishing the character of the real, fearless and often taciturn, Beryl Markham, a woman who at times was acknowledged by those who knew her to have been a first-class bitch!  Certainly, to achieve what she did in the Kenya of the early 20th century, would have taken a lot more tenacity of spirit than depicted by McLain in her novel.


Purely as fiction, ‘Circling the Sun’ is well worth reading.  It tells the story of a remarkable woman and gives a window into the harshness and overwhelming beauty of the African landscape and the sometimes eccentric denizens who risked not only their fortunes but their own lives in trying to tame this majestic land.

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