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April 03, 2017

Circling the Sun

Circling the Sun

By: Paula McLain

The beauty of novel reading is the opportunity to explore unfettered through time, place and personality; the reader experiences life through another’s eyes, thereby gaining fresh insights to his or her own. I recently enjoyed a new work of historical fiction by Paula McLain, bestselling author of The Paris Wife. In Circling the Sun, McLain will whisk you away to colonial Kenya in the early 1900s where you will embody a young British expat who is growing up wild and free in the Kenyan bush – what an adventure!

The narrative unfolds in the voice of Beryl Clutterbuck Markham, a real historical figure, documenting her unique and adventurous life from the age of four to adulthood. Beryl’s British mother, grown weary from the trials of subsisting on the untamed land, returns to England. Taking with her their young and sickly son, she leaves Beryl behind with her father. The emotional toll of maternal abandonment is a familiar concept to the author, who was also abandoned by her own mother at the age of four.

The story takes place primarily in Kenya, with occasional jaunts to London and other European locales. Though Beryl is a British citizen by birth, Kenya becomes her true home as she grows and matures among the native people with scant supervision from her father or other white community members. Charles Clutterbuck loves his daughter but is focused on ensuring the survival of his farm and grain mill, then building a stable of horses and training them to race. He is ill equipped to raise a strong-willed young girl alone and pays her precious little attention. The African mothers of Beryl’s playmates bestow their own brand of nurturing but as a white, girl-child with a penchant for adventure, she is an anomaly. Rather than assuming the traditional domestic role of the native village girls, Beryl roams with the boys preparing to be hunters and warriors. A stepmother figure eventually enters the scene; she attempts to prod Beryl into traditional societal norms. Not surprisingly, Beryl stubbornly resists and lives to suffer for it.

As Beryl reaches adulthood, life becomes much more complicated. She forges friendships with other strong women and maintains a connection with Kibii, her native childhood companion. There are two marriages and sundry affairs but only one great-but-impossible love in her life. Most of the entourage of fictionalized characters who populate Beryl’s days are based on historical fact and some are quite high profile, i.e. Denys Finch Hatton circa Out of Africa. Forced by circumstance to be independent and fearless, Beryl forges inroads in unexpected ways. She becomes the first woman to qualify as a licensed horse trainer and later, one of the earliest female commercial pilots. No matter the situation, she pushes the limits of convention. Occasionally her gambles pay off but sometimes she loses it all and must start again.

Paula McLain’s prose is beautifully descriptive and her plotlines are compelling. You can’t help but root for this scrappy underdog of a woman who never gives up. We can all take a lesson from her spunky determination to control her own destiny, despite daunting odds. If, after reading this novel, you find yourself obsessed with Beryl Markham, you may wish to pick up her memoir, West with the Night, which reveals more about her notable life.

Review By:  Pam Lamberger