Circling the Sun

Circling the Sun: A Novel
by Paula McClain


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Genre: Historical fiction

Plot summary:  A fictionalized story of the real Beryl Markham, celebrated horse trainer (one of the first women recognized in Africa) as well as record-setting aviator.  Pursuing a new job opportunity, Beryl’s father brings the whole family from England to Kenya.  Not long after, her mother decides she cannot fathom staying in Kenya and returns to England with Beryl’s brother.  Though she is content in Kenya and staying with her father, she is baffled and deeply hurt over her mother’s departure.  Seeking out the motherly relationship she lacks, she finds it among the tribes that surround her father’s land.  She also finds great satisfaction in training horses with her father.
Battling loneliness and depression, her insecurities spin her into a long line of bad relationships.  Her nature seems to mirror the wildness of her surrounding Kenyan landscape.  Beryl’s refusal to be tamed makes her tough and perfect for the work and environment, but miserable in her relationships.

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Beryl Markham was unknown to me before reading Circling the Sun: A Novel by Paula McClain.  (You might be familiar with Beryl’s friend, Karen Blixen, who wrote Out of Africa under the name Isak Denisen.  Out of Africa then became an award-winning film starring Robert Redford and Kathryn Hepburn.).  McClain’s descriptions of the beautiful, exotic Kenya were breathtaking.  She certainly can offer a wonderful sense of place.  Because it is so different than where (and when) we live, it is needed to guide the reader in understanding the nature of Beryl’s home and life.

Though much more rustic than England, it is unfathomable to me that Beryl’s mother would leave behind her child regardless of her own discomfort.  This happens in the beginning of the book (as well as the beginning of Beryl’s life, she wasn’t even 5) and from that moment, Beryl became wild and opinionated and stubborn.  It felt like she was fighting to prove she didn’t need anyone while at the same time silently begging people to notice and care for her.

Beryl was fiercely independent but also struggled to manage her fear.  Her complex relationship with Karen Blixen revealed opposition (because of a love interest) but also a confidant.  She said to Beryl: “We’re all of us afraid of many things, but if you make yourself smaller or let your fear confine you, then you really aren’t your own person at all–are you?  The real question is whether or not you will risk what it takes to be happy.”

Frustrations mounted for me throughout the book.  Clara, Beryl’s mother was among the worst.  Expecting sympathy from her daughter after being abandoned without much of an after-thought.  “She didn’t seem embarrassed to be speaking of the past with me.  She didn’t seem to remember I was a part of her past in the colony, in fact.  Though maybe that was best, when I thought about it–if we could treat each other more impartially, as if there were nothing to apologize or make amends for.  As if nothing had been lost.”  

My greatest enjoyment was the setting.  Seeing the rich landscape through Beryl’s admiring eyes, made me appreciate it so much more.  Reading a tough, independent, hard-working narrator is great though I was easily frustrated by her very poor relationship decisions.  And she never got better at it!  She knew, from the beginning, that Kenya was truly her first love.  It brought her the most joy, the most freedom and her deepest sense of peace.  Also, the native Kenyans seemed more “her people” than the transplants she befriended, married and with whom she socialized.

One final note, the jacket describes this book to be about Beryl the aviator.  If you read the book for that purpose you will be sorely disappointed.  While it is true she set records with feats in this realm, it is only discussed in the last chapter of the book (Imagine if I said Unbroken was a book about an Olympic runner.).  This book is much more about Beryl’s early years with her father and her life as an accomplished horse trainer.

What were your thoughts about Circling the Sun?  What did you learn about the real Beryl Markham?  Can you relate to her independence?