"Circling the Sun" Paula McLain
I read "The Paris Wife" a few years ago and it was one of those novels that quietly exceeded all my expectations, quickly becoming one of my favourite reads for that year and one I often recommend. I can still recall the main character of Hadley with ease and affection. I was keen to read the new McLain title; again it is also a fictionalised account of a real person, Beryl Markham, who grew up in Kenya becoming a pioneering horse race trainer and a record breaking pilot in the 1930s.
The book opens in Kenya, 1904, with Beryl's mother abandoning her and returning to England with her younger brother. The Kipsigis tribe that Beryl lives amongst, give her a cowie shell to ward off evil spirits. Even though she is "a white daughter of their white bwana - something unnatural has happened that need setting to rights....no African mother would ever have thought of abandoning a healthy child that is not maimed or weak...so they stamped out that start and gave me another." With this fresh new start bequeathed by the tribe, it seems Beryl becomes intrinsically linked with the Kipsigis people, learning how to throw spears, hunt warthogs and feel as if this is the place in which she truly belongs. A feeling which never leaves her.
The novel then continues to chart Beryl's childhood. She is a girl of strong character, refusing to be "straightened out" by the persevering, rule abiding housekeeper Mrs O, who tries to fulfil the role of wife and mother as well as managing the running the house. She is expelled from school but on her return to the Horse Farm run by her father, she finds it greatly changed by the outbreak of the First World War. The horses have been conscripted and race meetings suspended, the workforce depleted. I was fascinated by the historical detail and powerful image of the Kipsigis warriors going off to fight with their "spears held high, buffalo hide shields in the other..sent 100s of miles away, handed a rifle in place of a spear....come home with stories and enough gold to buy a wife." McLain's attention to detail and thorough research means the reader is effortlessly placed firmly within the historical context and location. Her description of Africa is evocative and convincing. It was easy to feel part of the landscape and visualise the setting.
Part Two takes us to 1919 and Beryl is now 16 years old. Despite her protestations, Beryl is persuaded to marry Jock, who is "alright" and "will make the farm work". Again, the reader is reminded of the historical context and restrictive role of women, perhaps emphasised within a colonial society. Beryl tries to "match" Jock and "be good at" the physical side of the relationship but she doesn't feel old enough or ready enough to really be a wife and she spends her wedding night feeling "lonely and numb as if some part of me had died".
Beryl is an interesting character. The novel feels very much a journey of emotional discovery as she strives to find her place in the world. She is a talented, bold, unintimidated woman who wishes for equality and to be given the same opportunities as men. In many respects she succeeds later on with her career but her late teenage years are spend trying to reconcile herself with the restrictive life of a female in a high profile marriage. Even her successes in training a winning horse are celebrated more fully by Jock, who stands to make more fame and financial gain then her. Jock changes too as the relationship continues to struggle and Beryl refuses to conform. He is worried about his name, his reputation, his family and is a proud, controlling man. Their marriage becomes a sad pretence.
The intriguing thing about Beryl is how connected she is to the Kipsigis tribe and the environment. She is quite spiritually connected to the land and to the rituals of the tribal people. As she struggles to make hard choice she loses herself within tribal songs and chants and throughout her whole life, whenever faced with a difficult decision or needs comfort, she always retreats to the African songs, stories and ways. One evening she steals away to watch a dance and to lose herself within the rhythms and movements. As she watches she reflects that "they know something I didn't and possibly never would......my heart seemed to leave my body as the verses and refrains gathered speed like a great wheel". Beryl's lifelong dilemma is how to offset her limited reprieves of freedom, love and career against the entrapment of the enduring conventions and expectations of propriety amongst society. It is no wonder that it is flying which really appeals to Beryl - to be able to move in a space where there are no barriers and nothing "to stop you from going on forever....it doesn't hold anything back or want to stop you."
McLain writes with vivid description and there are some beautiful phrases and imagery throughout the novel. I found Beryl an appealing, likeable character. Although fallible and not always reasonable, she had flair and individuality. There are some poignant moments within the story and ultimately Beryl completes her physical, spiritual and emotional journey and finds reconciliation. She makes bold decisions and often disastrous ones - either ill fated or selfishly- she makes some decisions which might not enamour her to the reader but it makes for a rich tapestry and fascinating tale. She is a woman of adventure and ambition who seeks to be unconventional. I enjoyed the story, the character and the setting. I did feel transported to another country and era and I thought the closing lines of the novel were very resonant.
McLain's novel has also made me consider reading "Out of Africa" and Markham's own book "West with the Night" to learn more about her life story and of Africa. I was interested to read in the Author's Notes that Beryl had met with Hemingway who admired her (there are rumours of an affair!) which must have intrigued McLain following her research and interest in Hemingway from "The Paris Wife".
I would recommend this book. It is an easy and interesting read and McLain's style is very accessible and enjoyable.
My thanks to NetGalley and the publishers for an advanced copy of this book in return for a fair review.
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