1920s Kenya: Circling the Sun

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. 

15 thoughts on “1920s Kenya: Circling the Sun

  1. West With the Night is definitely worth reading, so I hope you find a copy and write about how you liked it *after* reading Circling the Sun. I read WWTN not too long ago and loved it. It definitely affected my reading of this book, but thankfully, I ended up enjoying it as much as you did.

  2. Love this review! I met Paula briefly when she was in Toronto a few weeks ago, and she spoke about this so passionately. I’m not a huge historical fiction fan, so I’ve never picked up any of her previous work, but a badass woman with animals too? That sounds right up my alley!

    • No historical fiction? Oh I love the genre. But I was worried about her handling of another real life woman. I’m so glad that she picked Beryl. I think the fact that she felt such a connection to the real woman really affected the writing. You can feel the author’s passion.

  3. I think there is a streak of tough “nature women” emerging from that period in history, arising from the environment and upbringings – her toughness sounds a bit like that of Juanita Carberry, who wrote a rather disturbing memoir of her abused childhood among the Happy Valley set.

    • Yeah I don’t think I would have wanted to grow up among those folks. Evidently no matter where you spent the 1920s, people were extraordinarily self involved. I guess considering what they’d all just survived. it’s probably no wonder. But still!
      I love me some tough women though!

  4. Now I want you to read WWTN, so I can hear what you think of that one. Then, maybe I’ll be able to decide whether or not to read this book (isn’t that your job?). I’m worried about what Kay said about it not portraying Markham accurately. But, by the sounds of it, I could just enjoy it the way it is and not worry about its accuracy. 🙂

    • I think if you were already familiar with Beryl, it might be harder to enjoy this. Happily, I wasn’t. I’ll probably read WWTN and go “that’s not what Beryl was like!” hahahaha
      It’s totally my job to figure out if you would like certain books! At least a hobby anyway.

  5. I’ve got this book in my bag, ready for a plane journey! I love the Happy Valley set and will read anything set in that time and place. I also didn’t know Beryl was a real person, but now I’m quite smitten with the idea of her. I hope i like it as much as you did.

  6. Pingback: Hemingway as a footnote: Love and Ruin | The Paperback Princess

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