Day 1222: West with the Night

Cover for West with the NightBest of Five!
When it was republished in the 1980’s, West with the Night was controversial because of Markham’s third ex-husband’s claim to have written most of the book and allegations by people who knew Markham that she was practically illiterate. In her biography of Markham, Mary S. Lovell effectively refutes these allegations, noting particularly that nothing like this was said the first time it was published and that part of the manuscript was submitted to a publisher before she met her third husband.

Actually, I don’t think anyone but Beryl Markham could have written West with the Night. It is beautifully written, with evocative descriptions of Africa and insights into her own thinking. It is not an autobiography. Most of the intimate details of her life are left out. We do not hear, for example, that when her father first left British East Africa for Peru, she was married to her first husband.

Instead, West with the Night is a series of recollections about Markham’s childhood and life in Africa, ending just after she flew across the Atlantic by herself. The book is deeply interesting and thought-provoking. Here and there she interjects a few stories told to her by natives. She was a remarkable woman, both Kenya’s first woman horse trainer and one of the world’s first woman pilots, the first person to fly east to west over the Atlantic (the more difficult direction).

West with the Night is sometimes compared to Out of Africa, written by her friend Karen Blixen (Isak Dinesen), but I find Markham’s book to be much better. It is both simply written and full of understated emotion.

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Day 1219: In a Strange Room

Cover for In a Strange RoomBest of Five!
It’s not clear to me whether In a Strange Room is a novel or three slightly linked short stories. I’ve seen it referred to as both. The linkage comes from journeys, as each section deals with a journey the narrator takes with different people.

This narration is complex. South African novelist Galgut himself is the narrator, but he speaks both in first and third person, the one hinting at intimacy, the other, more often used, at distance.

The first section, or story, “The Follower,” deals with a journey in the early 1990’s with a German named Reiner. The narrator meets him on another trip, and although they do not know each other well, they correspond. Eventually, Reiner comes to Africa, and the two take a journey through Lesotho. It’s difficult to understand what the narrator sees in Reiner besides good looks, and eventually the trip becomes a battle for control.

The second section, “The Lover,” starts with Damon latching on to a group of Europeans traveling in Africa after he leaves the group he started with. He keeps running into them when he is with the first group and offers to help them when they are turned away from the Malawan border for not having visas. Damon and Jerome are attracted to each other, but they can barely communicate, as Damon doesn’t speak French and Jerome barely speaks English.

In “The Guardian,” Damon takes his old friend, Anna, on a trip to India. She has recently been hospitalized for mental illness, and Damon finds it increasingly difficult to deal with her.

I didn’t really enjoy Galgut’s novel about E. M. Forster, so I wasn’t exactly looking forward to reading this novel for my Booker Prize project. But I am happy to say that I found In a Strange Room powerful and touching. It is sparsely written but completely involving. Even though it doesn’t explicitly express emotion, it still evokes an emotional response. I am happy to have changed my mind about Galgut.

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Day 1201: In the Shadow of 10,000 Hills

Cover for In the Shadow of 10,000 HillsRachel Shepherd has recently lost the child she was expecting. Her husband, Mick, expects her to grieve for a month and then get over it, but she cannot. She thinks a lot about her father, Henry Shepherd, who disappeared from her life when she was seven. Her mother has also recently died, and in her things, Rachel finds a newspaper clipping of a young African-American girl in church during a sermon by Martin Luther King, Jr., the photo taken by her father as a young man.

Rachel figures this photo must have been important to her father and decides to try to find her father through this girl, now presumably an older woman. However, the woman does not answer her emails.

That woman is Lillian Carlson, who now lives in Rwanda. Henry had been living with her until two years ago, when he also disappeared from there. She does not feel that she can tell Rachel anything helpful, which is why she hasn’t responded.

Lillian provides a home for children orphaned during the Rwandan genocide. Tucker, an American doctor, has a room in her house, where he also keeps Rose, his adopted Rwandan daughter. Tucker decides it could be good for both Lillian and Rachel if they met, so he invites Rachel to come in Lillian’s name.

The core of this novel is devoted to the events of the Rwandan genocide and their continuing ramifications, during the time this novel is set (2000), for Lillian and her household. In particular, Nadine, a girl taken in by Lillian and Henry, was the witness of a horrific event.

I didn’t really engage with this novel, but I’m not sure why. I do know of one thing that particularly irked me, and that was the sections from Henry’s point of view. First, although they show his thoughts, they are written more in a speaking style, a style no one would use in thinking. For example, a rough such recollection (not a direct quote) of one thought was something like Gee, what does a guy have to do . . . . You see what I mean, utterly unconvincing.

And in general there is the type of person Henry is. For most of the novel, he just sort of lets fate push him around, and when he takes an action, he refuses to deal with its ramifications. He most often doesn’t take responsibility. Since a great deal of this novel revolves around the results of his actions, I found this infuriating.

link to NetgalleyFinally, I think the characters in general are too prone to be one-sided. Take, for example, Mick. He gives Rachel a deadline for grieving for her child. He has to spend every holiday with his parents. He won’t compromise. He’s not bad, really, but it’s clear from the beginning that he and Rachel will split, so he shows no qualities that would make her want to stay. These are characters serving the plot rather than ones who are convincingly complex.

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Day 851: Straight On Till Morning

Cover for Straight on Till MorningWhen I read Circling the Sun a few months ago, I surmised that I wasn’t reading about the real Beryl Markham but someone who had been sanitized for popular consumption. Reading Straight on Till Morning has shown me that I was absolutely right. Markham was an unconventional woman who was difficult for others to understand. She had virtually no fear and didn’t care what people thought about her. Although she sometimes behaved without regard to others, she had some friends for life.

Straight on Till Morning is an extremely interesting biography of a fascinating woman. It follows Markham through her careers as horse trainer, flyer, and author. It also tells of her relationships with many well-known people, including Dennis Finch Hatton and Karen Blixen (Isak Dinesen), Ernest Hemingway, Prince Harry, and Lord Delamere, as well as her three husbands and some of her many lovers.

One subject it tackles brilliantly is the authorship of Beryl’s memoir West with the Night. Controversy occurred when Beryl’s third husband claimed to have written the book, and others asserted that she couldn’t have written it because she was almost illiterate. Lovell is able to show, first, that no one questioned Markham’s authorship until the book was republished in the 1980’s, second, that not only was Markham a voracious reader but she submitted hundreds of pages to her editor before she even met her husband. Her husband, Raoul Schumaker, was a writer of sorts (mostly pulp westerns), but it is Lovell’s opinion that his style is nothing like that of West with the Night but much more closely matches that of some short stories they collaborated on. Lovell states that Schumaker probably helped Markham edit West with the Night, but the remaining artifacts of that collaboration (comments and markups) indicate that his role was as editor.

If you are at all interested in this unusual woman who led such a colorful life, I think you’ll enjoy this biography. It is lively and well written and meticulous in research.

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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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