Day 736: Circling the Sun

Cover for Circling the SunPaula 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.

link to NetgalleyI 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.

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14 thoughts on “Day 736: Circling the Sun

  1. Jane @ Beyond Eden Rock July 15, 2015 / 1:45 pm

    That’s disappointing; but at least Beryl Markham wrote her own story in ‘West with the Night’, which I haven’t read but have heard praised.

    • whatmeread July 15, 2015 / 1:47 pm

      Yes, I have it on my reading list. I don’t know. I think many people would like this book. I just thought she was a more unusual person than depicted in it.

  2. Audra (Unabridged Chick) July 16, 2015 / 7:33 am

    Great review — I’m struggling with my own for the reasons you cited — the Beryl I’ve seen elsewhere and McLain’s version. I really enjoyed this book despite that dissonance but it makes me wish authors would stop doing biographical novels if they’re going to soft pedal the figure. Why not just fictionalize this heroine?

  3. Naomi July 21, 2015 / 12:22 pm

    Hmm… to read or not to read?

    • whatmeread July 21, 2015 / 12:27 pm

      I’m in the middle on that one. That’s why I didn’t say anything strongly one way or the other. I just had a feeling that the character didn’t really resemble the real Beryl.

      • Naomi July 21, 2015 / 1:04 pm

        Yes, that would be disappointing. Maybe I’ll wait and see what some others say about it.

      • whatmeread July 21, 2015 / 1:06 pm

        I think I’ve seen some other reviews on it, but I can’t think of which blogs.

  4. Lady Fancifull July 26, 2015 / 11:31 am

    Interesting review. My own goes up on my blog in a few days time, but, having written it, I started to look at other reviews, and you come to the same conclusion as I did. I had a kind of frustration with the book – had she written a novel ‘inspired by the lives of’ – but given her characters fictional names, I would have felt very differently about the book, and five starred it as a novel, but she has rather cherry-picked a life, I think. The real woman (from my researches after reading the book) seems a far more complex person, whose behaviour was much more challenging and possibly much more to be censured (by conventional morality) I do think she has been airbrushed in this book. But, I’ve ordered Markham’s own version of her life and flying, AND Mary Lovell’s authorised biography, as she seems, whether sanitised or left good and dirty, a remarkable woman.

    • whatmeread July 27, 2015 / 7:30 am

      That was my feeling without having backed it with much research. I have a biography in my stack, and I’m interested to see what it says.

  5. TJ @ MyBookStrings July 28, 2015 / 8:02 am

    I finally read and reviewed this book, so now I can read your review. 🙂 And I agree with you… having read her memoir West With the Night not too long ago, Beryl Markham felt a little too traditional to me in this book.

    • whatmeread July 28, 2015 / 8:14 am

      I haven’t read that or a biography yet, but that was my impression. Thanks for confirming it!

  6. Lynn @ Smoke & Mirrors February 28, 2017 / 4:02 pm

    Huh. I guess I am just easily impressed. I loved this book and I didn’t feel as if Beryl was at all sanitized. In fact I felt quite the opposite. I also read and reviewed West With the Night and was very glad to have read that, too. It was interesting to put both of these together into a comprehensive picture of this amazing woman!

  7. whatmeread February 28, 2017 / 10:28 pm

    I felt she was much more conventional than she was depicted elsewhere.

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