I’m excited to finally share a true beach read with you! Tuck this novel away in your beach bag for an upcoming autumn evening by the sea.
Most of you will be familiar with the collection of short stories Out of Africa, or at least the movie of the same name, inspired by the life of its author, coffee farmer, aristocrat, and socialite Baroness Karen Blixen.
Writing under the pen name Isak Dinesen, she chronicled her time living in the colony of British East Africa (now Kenya). She is most infamous for her long-term affair with British safari hunter Denys Finch Hatton, whose love for freedom and adventure was too wild for Karen to tame.
However, very few people are aware of Denys Finch Hatton’s other lover: the equally as wild and untamable Beryl Markham, who is the subject of Paula McClain’s most recent novel, Circling the Sun. Although a work of historical fiction, McClain weaves together the lives of these three characters so well that it’s easy to believe that what she imagines to fill the gaps between the facts is true.
Abandoned by her mother as a toddler, raised in Kenya by her horse trainer father, and left to spend her days with the local Kipsigis tribe, Beryl grows up learning the skills of a native warrior: how to hunt, throw a spear, and jump high in the air, like the Kipsigis boys. The sweeping plains of Africa are her playground and she lives like the lines of one of Walt Whitman’s poems in Leaves of Grass:
I think I could turn and live with animals,
they are so placid and self-contain’d,
They do not sweat and whine about their condition,
They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins.
It is only when teenage Beryl is required to conform to early 20th century female roles, does her life begin to unravel. Without the example of a successful marriage to guide her and the promiscuous precedent set by her fellow spouse-swapping colonists, Beryl struggles to keep hold of her independent spirit in the face of a stifling society.
When she meets Denys Finch Hatton, who, like her, prefers animals and the African plains to champagne soaked celebrations at the Muthaiga Club, only then does Beryl’s unconventional life make sense. Their intense and secret love affair rivals that of Denys and Karen’s and plunges young Beryl into one of Colonial Africa’s most well-known love triangles.
Beryl was very much a woman before her time. She was the first licensed female racehorse trainer in Kenya with six Kenya Derby wins. She was also one of the first women ever in history to be granted a professional B pilot’s licence. Her memoir, West with the Night, was praised by her contemporary Ernest Hemmingway, who wrote the following to his editor in 1942:
“Did you read Beryl Markham’s book… she has written so well, and marvelously well, that I was simply ashamed of myself as a writer… it really is a bloody wonderful book.”
I must warn you – DO NOT Google Beryl Markham before you read the novel or otherwise you’ll spoil the cliffhanger. Circling the Sun is the perfect book for readers looking for adventure, romance, and to fantasize about Robert Redford washing your hair (sorry, I couldn’t resist).