Kernel Morgan reviews CIRCLING THE SUN by Paula McLain, an historical fiction memoir of Beryl Markham, a lesser known but record holding British aviator who was a background character in Sydney Pollack’s OUT OF AFRICA. The book has been compared as belonging to the canon of Hemingway with its paired-down prose. That is a HUGE call, so read on, dear reader and see the thoughts of Lady Morgan. CIRCLING THE SUN is out now from Hachette Australia, it is available in most bookstores or you can buy it from HERE. All the best……….JK.
CIRCLING THE SUN is a historical fiction novel based on the early life of record-making British aviator Beryl Markham, set primarily in colonial Kenya from the early 1900s to 1936. Paula McLain is known for her best seller THE PARIS WIFE, a fictional autobiography of Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley Richardson, set in Paris in the 1920s. McLain has probably created another best seller in CIRCLING THE SUN by re-using the same technique: re-imaging the grit and challenges of a real person and presenting the events via a girlish and palatable inner monologue.
In CIRCLING THE SUN the swoony voice of Beryl is unabashedly contemporary, it could be the voice of a teenage vampire or dystopian starlet. She has a crush on a boy, Denys Finch Hatton, who is dating her best friend Karen Blixon. “I sat and listened to Karen’s sad, beautiful words, wanting to hate her – her good chairs and carpets. Her rare white lilies and face powder and overdramatic kohl. She was wrong for trying to keep Denys on a chain, but didn’t I want him too?” When Beryl first meets Denys she describes him as “walking towards us with purpose. He carried himself like a prince too, and had thick, combed moustache, reddish hair and no hat.”
The real Beryl – a pioneer in aviation, the first solo woman to cross the Atlantic Ocean from east to west (west to east was Amelia Earhart) – was famously described by Hemingway as ‘very unpleasant and we might even say a high-grade bitch.’ Markham’s autobiography WEST WITH THE NIGHT is written with a serious and self-assured tone, and presents Markham as a philosopher and leader.
McLain has chosen to modernise and hyper-feminise the voice of Beryl Markham, She has turned a thrill-seeking competitive tomboy into an unsure follower. The encouragement of Denys Finch Hatton is presented as the decided factor in her career as a pilot and a force for change in her confidence. It is Denys that reminds her “But you broke the same sort of territory as a trainer, didn’t you?” Beryl replies “I suppose so. This feels different though. It’s just you and your instincts up there isn’t it?” Beryl describes coveting Denys’s confidence “while I trailed behind, thinking about how lightly Denys wore his body. There wasn’t the smallest twinge of self-consciousness in him. He knew how to stand and where to put his arms and feet, and how to accomplish what needed doing – and never seemed to doubt himself or any part of the world he moved in.” When Beryl tells her husband Mansfield that he is sounding like her friend Karen, being honoured to be invited to a party, he replies “I suppose that must mean you sound like Finch Hatton.” Denys asks Beryl what she’s thinking and she answers “Just how much you’ve changed me.”
McLain has not chosen to contextualise the events of Markham’s life by including any character awareness about the damage white settlers caused – using Africa as a colonial playground – or the realities of the western ivory trade. The euphemism ‘big game hunter’ is used to describe the profession of Beryl’s love interest Denys Finch Hatton. He is a poacher, slaughtering elephants for their tusks. His profession is the primary thing Beryl loves about him. It is used to depict him as a free-spirit and a fearless discoverer. “’It wouldn’t be such a bad life, you know, to be a lion,’ Denys said. ‘The whole of Africa is his buffet. He takes what he wants, when he wants, without over-exerting himself.’”
In CIRCLING THE SUN Beryl survives being mauled by a neighbour’s pet lion as a child. Her father loses his farm. She marries a neighbour at sixteen, then leaves him to train horses for Lord Delamere in the Kenyan highlands. By the time she’s eighteen, she is the first woman to be licensed as a horse trainer in Kenya. She has affairs, divorces, marriages, pregnancies, and returns to Kenya alone to begin flying airplanes. We follow Beryl through to 1930, when at age twenty-eight, she finally requites her love for Denys Finch Hatton.
It is clear that McLain greatly admires Beryl Markham and has gone to lengths to research her and the places and times of her early life. After the Epilogue, Authors Note, and Acknowledgements, there are two pages of ‘further reading’ list (called A Note On Sources) for engaged readers to continue their historical journey in non-fiction. In 361 pages there are 62 chapters over three parts, most chapters are only two or three pages long. This kind of novel is designed to be an easily digestible method of getting non-academic people to absorb some history. Like putting some bran in a chocolate cupcake. Beryl Markham is not a household name. Perhaps it was a necessary evil to cast her story in the mould of an epic romance with the ethos of that Robert Redford film UP CLOSE AND PERSONAL and Celine Dion singing that song (I’m Everything I Am) Because You Loved Me. As Redford played Denys Finch Hatton in OUT OF AFRICA, where his romance is with Karen Blixon (Meryl Streep) and Beryl Markham is a background extra, perhaps that juxtaposition is intentional.
Kernel Morgan is an author of short fiction, an anthology editor, and a technical writer. Her debut collection was SNIGGERLESS BOUNDULATIONS. She enjoys scowling at children and bursting bubbles. She can be tweeted and stalked at @queenboxi.