As a young girl, Beryl Markham was brought to Kenya from Britain by parents dreaming of a new life. For her mother, the dream quickly turned sour, and she returned home; Beryl was brought up by her father, who switched between indulgence and heavy-handed authority, allowing her first to run wild on their farm, then incarcerating her in the classroom. The scourge of governesses and serial absconder from boarding school, by the age of sixteen Beryl had been catapulted into a disastrous marriage – but it was in facing up to this reality that she took charge of her own destiny.
Scandalizing high society with her errant behaviour, she left her husband and became the first woman ever to hold a professional racehorse trainer’s licence. After falling in with the notoriously hedonistic and gin-soaked Happy Valley set, Beryl soon became embroiled in a complex love triangle with the writer Karen Blixen and big game-hunter Denys Finch Hatton (immortalized in Blixen’s memoir Out of Africa). It was this unhappy affair which set tragedy in motion, while awakening Beryl to her truest self, and to her fate: to fly.
What I thought:
This was a truly compelling read. I found myself pulled along with the story from the very first page. Usually when I’m reading a book to review I keep a notebook at my side and jot down screeds of notes as I go. This book was so interesting and moved along so quickly that I got half way through and realised I hadn’t written anything more than the title! This is a great book to lose yourself in.
You find yourself in the midst of a vast array of ex-pat characters throwing themselves into colonial life with all that brings. They are nuanced and complicated, but by and large they are likeable.
Beryl is one of times’ early aviatrix (to use a delightfully old-fashioned word) and an adventurer on a grand scale – becoming a trail-blazing horse trainer in a world of lions and Empire struggles, bad marriages, love affairs and booze. She faces each setback with a spirit that appears to be indomitable.
I only realised part-way through this novel that Circling the Sun is based on a true story. I restrained myself from doing any research on Beryl until after I had finished the novel, and when I did, I was captivated by the lifeline of this fascinating woman.
Circling the Sun is a beautifully written story of an intriguing character – well worth the read. I’m off to hunt down a copy of McLain’s ‘The Paris Wife’ now!
I give Circling the Sun 9/10
(Book supplied by Hachette NZ)