Circling the Sun by Paula McLain
Published by Ballantine Books
Publication date: July 28th 2015
Genres: Fiction, Historical
I have a chart that traces my route over the Atlantic, Abingdon to New York, every inch of icy water I’ll pass over, but not the emptiness involved or the loneliness, or the fear. Those things are as real as anything else, though, and I’ll have to fly through them. Straight through the sickening dips and air pockets, because you can’t chart a course around anything you’re afraid of. You can’t run from any part of yourself, and it’s better you can’t.
For me, the little I knew of Beryl Markham was as a fictional character from the movie Out of Africa: a pretty but tomboyish young woman whose family wanted her to become a lady and get married. How fortunate then to have an author like Paula McLain turn her keen eye to this unusual and daring woman who, while never quite conforming to society’s demands, lived a life of tremendous highs and lows without ever giving up. In her novel Circling the Sun McClain begins in 1904 when Markham’s family leaves England and settles in the African colony of Kenya.
After two years living in mud huts with no plumbing her mother has had enough and returns to England leaving Markham behind with her father. Despite this loss Markham is already firmly ensconced in African life and feels it to be her true home. She feels the same way about the horses her father trains and at the age of eighteen she is the first woman in Africa to get her training license—a feat unheard of at the time. It is only when she is sixteen and her father decides to move far away that she breaks stride and marries an older farmer in order to stay in the area, a mistake that follows her for years. In that time, she meets and falls in love with Denys Finch Hatton, a safari hunter, and her friend Karen Blixen’s lover. If it sounds messy, it is, as much of the social interactions seemed to be in Kenya at the time. Markham gives little thought to this. For her, life is only about the horses she trains; animals she feels have more interesting qualities and inherent strengths than the humans around her. This is especially true of the men she encounters when time and time again, horses she’s brought to the peak of their powers are taken away from her months before big races, meaning she has no claim to their winnings.
Markham’s personal life may have been scandalous for the times but it is to McLain’s credit that it is not the focus of Circling the Sun. Rather it is her visceral commitment to every decision she made, her abiding love of Africa and her inability to be anything other than what she is that is the lifeblood of the novel.
But in another way I didn’t believe anything would be solved by talking or explaining. We’d made our choices, separately and together, hadn’t we? We were who we were.
It is this aspect of McLain’s writing that makes it difficult for me to write too much more about Circling the Sun because I’m going to become gushy. Not only is the terrain and life of Kenya thrown open to the reader in all its panoramic beauty, but McLain achieves the same effect in capturing the context and excitement of the times, when so much of the world was changing. Through the power of her words, as they pour off the page, Markham is visible, striding through her life, giving her all to everything she loved, be it horses, airplanes, or the African land and her companions there. McLain does not mythologize Markham, but through prose that is poetic in its fierce embrace of a gifted and wildly exuberant woman, brings her vividly to life.