Paula McClain’s novel about Beryl Markham begins with her historic flight over the Atlantic from east to west—and then flashes back to cover her life until then. Of course, the story of her life is interesting because she was a fascinating person.
Beryl is raised in Kenya, and after her mother leaves the family to return to England when Beryl is four, Beryl is allowed to run around freely for years. She befriends the local natives and plays with the boys until she is almost a teenager. At that point, her father hires a series of governesses in an attempt to civilize her, an effort not entirely successful.
Beryl’s father is a horse trainer, and she works with him up to the point where her last governess, by then her father’s mistress, decides she should prepare for husband-hunting. She makes a marriage of convenience when her father is forced to sell their farm and take a job in Capetown, but soon she is separated from her husband and seeking a job as a horse trainer. She becomes the first woman licensed horse trainer.
The novel follows Beryl through her introduction to the Happy Valley set, her friendships with Karen Blixen (Isak Dinesen) and Denys Finch-Hatton, and her second marriage to Mansfield Markham.
Although this material is certainly interesting, I was never convinced that the character McLain presents us with is the true Beryl. This interpretation of Beryl’s character doesn’t match the one presented by other sources. My feelings made me wish I had read a biography of Markham before reading this novel, so I could be surer of these statements.
I feel as if Beryl’s character and other facts are somehow sanitized for our easier acceptance. Although some expression is given to her impatience of convention and yearning for freedom, McLean still portrays her as a woman who wants acceptance and love. I’m guessing, for example, that her abandonment by her mother at a young age left her with few mothering skills and her lifestyle left her with little desire to be a mother. Some sources I consulted said she willingly abandoned her son to her mother-in-law, but in McLain’s book, she is grief-stricken when the child is taken away from her. That tells me that McLain can’t imagine a different reaction to motherhood than the typical one. I think McLean mentions the qualities that made Markham different without really understanding them.
As another example of what I called sanitization, let’s not forget Karen Blixen’s illness, referred to briefly a couple of times, but never explained as syphilis, given to her by her husband Bror.