The Paris Wife was one of the first books my book club read together. And I just did not like it.
So I wasn’t sure at all if I was going to read Paula McLain’s new book, Circling the Sun. I was lucky enough to get an ARC of this book and took it with me to the lake earlier this month.
It turned out to be the perfect place to read this absorbing story. I could not put it down and ended up finishing it in two sittings.
Circling the Sun is the story of Beryl Markham, someone I’d never actually heard of before. The novel opens with Beryl attempting to fly solo across the Atlantic and as she’s attempting to switch the fuel tanks her mind wanders back to her childhood in Kenya. Her father had bought a large piece of property as part of a plan by the government to get a settlement started near the railways in the area. He’s a great horse trainer, and has no problem living very simply but his English born wife and delicate son don’t feel the same way and when Beryl is 5, her mother leaves her to go back to England. Beryl is more or less left to her own devices, becoming friends with the local people, learning their ways of life, indulged to run around as the boys do because she is white.
As she grows up, Beryl constantly runs up against the conventions of her time: she should wear a hat and gloves, she should be educated at boarding school, she should ride side saddle, women can’t train horses, she should get married etc. Each time she bucks the trend and forges her own path, earning a training certificate for horses, probably the first woman to do so. When her father’s farm fails, she hastily jumps into marriage with a neighbour she barely knows, Jock. Because of her work training horses, she winds up hob nobbing with the Happy Valley set, a group of wealthy expats who thrive on the excess. Beryl becomes entangled in a relationship with safari hunter Denys Finch Hutton and Karen Blixen.
I had no expectations of this book so I wasn’t prepared to love it. I’ve been waiting for a female character like Beryl (who isn’t a character at all of course, she was a real person), someone who wasn’t content to just let her life go by the way other people wanted it to be, someone who grabbed her own destiny and lived by her own rules. She struggles with her decisions, she’s never convinced that she’s made the right ones but she tries her best and she never backs down. McLain does a fantastic job of creating the world Beryl lived in, of bringing these people back to life in all their flawed glory. 1920s Kenya blazes to life, bringing with it a reminder of the struggles it faced and the way it used to be, when big game was still plentiful and allowed to be free.
Quite simply, I loved this book. McLain said in the afterword that she had read Beryl’s book, West With the Night, and that it took a powerful hold of her imagination. Obviously I’m now on the hunt for this book that Hemingway himself called a “bloody wonderful book.”
Thanks to Penguin Random House of Canada for providing me with an ARC of this book.