Author: Paula McLain
Release Date: July 28, 2015
Reviewing: Kindle ebook
Reason for reading: Book club pick
In Which I Explore LitFicPaula McLain, author of the phenomenal bestseller The Paris Wife, now returns with her keenly anticipated new novel, transporting readers to colonial Kenya in the 1920s. Circling the Sun brings to life a fearless and captivating woman—Beryl Markham, a record-setting aviator caught up in a passionate love triangle with safari hunter Denys Finch Hatton and Karen Blixen, who as Isak Dinesen wrote the classic memoir Out of Africa.
Brought to Kenya from England as a child and then abandoned by her mother, Beryl is raised by both her father and the native Kipsigis tribe who share his estate. Her unconventional upbringing transforms Beryl into a bold young woman with a fierce love of all things wild and an inherent understanding of nature’s delicate balance. But even the wild child must grow up, and when everything Beryl knows and trusts dissolves, she is catapulted into a string of disastrous relationships.
Beryl forges her own path as a horse trainer, and her uncommon style attracts the eye of the Happy Valley set, a decadent, bohemian community of European expats who also live and love by their own set of rules. But it’s the ruggedly charismatic Denys Finch Hatton who ultimately helps Beryl navigate the uncharted territory of her own heart. The intensity of their love reveals Beryl’s truest self and her fate: to fly.
Set against the majestic landscape of early-twentieth-century Africa, McLain’s powerful tale reveals the extraordinary adventures of a woman before her time, the exhilaration of freedom and its cost, and the tenacity of the human spirit.
Or at least, slightly more literary than usual. About two years ago, I started a new job at a Very Very Large corporation, which has a number of clubs and organizations to help employees connect on a personal level. So of course I checked out the book clubs. I had some doubts though, because I'm pretty sure of what books I like and what I don't; I am decidedly not a "highbrow" reader; and I'm not much for reading deeply, beyond a good story and great characters. But finally after keeping an eye on the club for a while and riding out various scheduling conflicts, I read the right book and made it to the meeting.
I was pleasantly surprised to really love the book. The book club itself was not exactly what I expected, and it turns out I didn't need to be concerned about not reading deeply enough. The discussion was pretty much limited to "I liked it/didn't like it;" "I liked/didn't like the characters;" "I thought it was slow" (it was); and "but feminism!" So I will bring all that extra thinkyness I had going here to the blog.
As a Novel
For me, the story broke down into two main parts -- before and after Beryl's pregnancy. The "before" traces her life from about age five, through adolescence, marriage, and several love affairs. There is another natural break in the "before" when her father leaves her to find a job some distance away, but from a style and story standpoint, it was not as jarring to me. The biggest flaw I saw was somewhat structural; I felt the "after" part of the story was a bit anti-climactic and just less... passionate.
I really loved the "before." The author brings the landscape of early 20th century east Africa vividly to life. In some books, the landscape is a character, a theme, an all-encompassing influence over everything in the story, and that is the case for Circling the Sun. The isolation, the undeveloped land, the frequently-deadly wildlife -- all of these formed Beryl's life and character as much and more than her parents.
There are a number of defining events in Beryl's life. Throughout the book, she refers to them as "tests," which I thought was interesting. She was constantly proving herself -- but to whom? her father? maybe. Society? yes, I think so -- but most of all, to herself. Strongly influenced by the way native boys were raised in that time and place, I think strength is what she valued the most. Physical, very much so. Emotional, well as always, that is a more complex question. It seemed to me that being strong to Beryl equated to bearing the censure of others without letting it influence her course. She was not good at forming friendships or personal connections -- she was too outside the norms, even in a place where the local white society was absolutely committed to flouting British norms. But like any outsider community, they had their own requirements of conformity, which Beryl broke as easily as any other. Did she suffer for this? I think she did. I don't think she was a happy person for much of her life.
The writing is just beautiful. It's layered and evocative, and --here's me getting deep -- I think many of Beryl's observations were reflections of how she saw herself. Here's an example, where she is describing the rehabilitation and training of a horse who was pushed too hard when young, causing damage to her legs:
A rose-pink tide of flamingos startled around us, making their wooden sound. Tens of thousands of the birds climbed as one and then receded, settling with a clamour only to startle again. They became our timekeepers. They alone saw a kind of magic begin to happen as Wise Child grew stronger and surer of herself. She had been wounded, nearly broken. You could still see her fear each morning as she tested those first steps gingerly, as if the mud might hold knives. But she had a warrior's courage. When she opened up now, we could see trust and willingness in her, and something more than speed.Beryl is describing a horse here, but it so much applies to herself, also. Another passage, on safari:
For most of a day we walked through alkali flats, the white crust like a frosted layer of salt that rose into a powder when your boots punched through. We wore the chalk on us everywhere--up to our knees, in the creases of our fingers, clenching the rifle strap, down in the cavity between my breasts, and in my mouth, too. I couldn't keep it out and stopped trying. I couldn't keep anything out, I realized, and that was something I loved about Africa. The way it got at you from the outside in and never let up, and never let you go.So I would agree that the pacing was a bit slow, but I thought that was appropriate for the pace of Beryl's life. Tons of description can bog down a story, but in this book I felt it was necessary and integral, particularly because the landscape is so alien, at least to me.
Some of the women at bookclub felt that the preoccupation with Beryl's romantic (or not so romantic, even) partners diluted the feminist power of the story (I'm taking liberties here with the comments that were made and inferring in a little). There was one affair in particular that seemed pretty overtly mercenary. "She was always defining herself by a man!" first her friend Kibii, and her father, her husband, several affairs, and finally, when she gave up horse training and took up flying, it was pretty directly attributable to the tragic difficulties with her second husband and the birth of their child.
As a romance reader primarily, I suppose I have a different viewpoint. I like reading about relationships and how they change us. I do think that affairs and marriages can re-define us. Not exclusively, to be sure. I mean, I'm sure that if I'd lived through a lion attack, I would consider that something of a defining moment as well. But Beryl's various attachments each marked a transition in her life. I viewed them as less of a cause of the transitions and more of a result. She was drawn into the "Happy Valley Set," where tangled affairs and partner-trading seemed quite common. Unfortunately, Beryl's first husband hadn't got the memo and the scenes he caused again put Beryl at outsider status.
Beryl's second marriage was entirely different from the first, and possibly even more disastrous. Mansfield Markham was an English peer. It seemed that Kenya brought out the best in him, at least for Beryl, and when they returned to England for the birth of their child, he fell back under his domineering mother and blamed Beryl for their child's serious birth defects. When he retreated from her entirely, she turned to flying.
I felt like this was the weaker part of the book. I never felt that she loved flying the way she loved horse training. We never saw what motivated her to fly across the Atlantic. The flight itself consumed precious little page count. The book leaps from her first solo flight--just the takeoff, mind you-- and flashes out to the end stage of her trans-Atlantic flight. It was definitely a let-down, and the final scene -- alone, bleeding, crawling through a boggy marsh in Newfoundland-- is not what I wanted for this extraordinary woman. It made me miss my Happily Ever After endings rather fiercely.
After "the after"
It wasn't until I finished the book that I realized that it was about a real person, which obviously limits a bit what the author can and can't do with the story. It does make me want to know more about that time and place; to go read All The Hemingway; to watch Out of Africa (whose cast of characters overlaps significantly), and to read West With the Night, Beryl's own account of her life. I just might do all that.