“Circling the Sun” by Paula McLain

“Before Kenya was Kenya, Green Hills was alive and my father loved me. I could jump as high as Kibii and walk through the forest without making a sound. I could bring a warthog out of its hole by crinkling paper. I could be eaten by a lion and live. I could do anything, for I was in heaven still.”

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Paula McLain is known for breathing life into historical figures, making memoir into memory. In her newest novel, “Circling the Sun”, McLain takes on Beryl Markham, a remarkably daring woman whose name, I am embarrassed to admit, was unfamiliar to me. Beryl, born in England and raised in Kenya, was a fiercely independent woman who fought for herself and her place in a time, space, and profession(s) dominated by patriarchy. In 1920s Kenya Beryl found herself straining against the bonds of convention. Unable to tolerate the restraints of (bad) marriages and domestic life, she emerges as a prominent horse trainer, a source of gossip and scandal, and, later, a pilot.

McLain’s writing makes Beryl’s heartaches and frustrations visceral. She is a woman impossible to pin down and equally impossible to resist. Her wit commands a wry smile; her gasps for freedom leave the reader breathless. All of this is executed in language that is simple and direct.

‘There are women who’d be expecting a fellow to step up and get serious at some point.’

‘Is that what you’re worried about? I can’t seem to get rid of the husband I’ve got, and anyway, what I’d really like to know is how it feels to be on my own. Not someone’s daughter or wife, I mean …but my own person.’

‘Oh.’ It seemed I’d surprised him. ‘There isn’t a lot of that kind of thinking around here.’

‘Of course there is,’ I told him, trying to draw a smile. ‘It’s just usually a man who’s doing it.’

Beryl’s words early in the book, as she attempts to cross the Atlantic and before we flashback to watch her grow up, are both prescient and reflective. They set the tone for the entire book, serving as a metaphor for Beryl’s whole life.

“I have a chart that traces my route across 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 that you can’t. Sometimes I’ve thought it’s only our challenges that sharpen us, and change us too – a mile-long runway and nineteen hundred pounds of fuel. Black squadrons of clouds muscling in from every corner of the sky and the light fading, minute by minute. There is no way I could do any of this and remain the same.”

“Circling the Sun” isn’t biography. Beryl Markham is an historical figure, but she is also a vehicle for a story about strength in the face of adversity, being shaped by challenge, and the unquenchable thirst for independence and equality. The subject matter and the story’s messages were deftly handled and much appreciated. The writing itself is charming, if not terribly erudite. At times I felt as though the sex and romance were dialed up unnecessarily, as though making historical fiction into a “bodice-ripper” would sell the story better, when, in my opinion, it watered it down. All in all, “Circling the Sun” was an easy, nearly guilty, pleasure to read, suited perfectly for a lounge chair and a fruity drink, if not for a cold New England day.

Thank you to Fleet and Little, Brown Book Group for the complimentary copy in exchange for a fair and honest review.

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