http://www.dallasnews.com/lifestyles/books/20150807-fiction-review-circling-the-sun-by-paula-mclain.ece

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Aviation pioneer Beryl Markham, who in 1936 became the first woman to fly the Atlantic Ocean from east to west, is sometimes called “the British Amelia Earhart.”

While she was, indeed, born in England, Markham moved to British East Africa, as Kenya then was known, with her parents when she was just 4 years old. She grew up in Kenya as an Anglo-African during the fading imperial age and lived almost all of her extraordinary life there.

In her new novel, Circling the Sun, Paula McLain takes Markham’s story, which the pilot herself first told in her acclaimed 1942 memoir, West With the Night, and turns it into a moving first-person chronicle of a woman born before her time.

Markham’s West With the Night was admired by Ernest Hemingway, who called it “a bloody wonderful book.” Hemingway, not coincidentally, was a central character in McLain’s previous novel, The Paris Wife, which became a best-seller.

As in The Paris Wife, virtually every main character in Circling the Sun is based on historical fact, and McLain does an excellent job of capturing their physical likenesses and moral centers. But while The Paris Wife told the tale of Hadley Richardson, a woman who is remembered because she was faithfully married to Hemingway, Circling the Sun is all about a restless woman who, despite being married three times, was never completely faithful to anyone but herself.

McLain does not attempt to channel Markham’s more mature voice as captured in her gorgeous West With the Night prose. This is the story of young Beryl Clutterbuck, an incorrigible tomboy who stayed in Kenya with her horse-trainer father after her mother abandoned them and returned to England, unable to bear the hardships of farming in Africa.

“Gradually it became harder to remember my mother’s face, things she had said to me, days we had shared,” Beryl says. “But there were many days ahead of me. They spread out as far as I could see or wish for, the way the plain did all the way to the broken bowl of Menengai, or to [Mount] Kenya’s hard blue peak. It was safer to keep looking forwards.”

Young Beryl’s playmates were native children, and she preferred throwing spears and riding horses to more traditional girls’ games. She resisted governesses and boarding schools until her father gave up on formally educating her. Instead, she followed in his footsteps and became a successful horse trainer, the first woman in Africa licensed to do so. Like her father, she reveled in horse racing: “I had always loved all of it — even what couldn’t be controlled or predicted.”

Beryl’s taste for unpredictability made her helpless to resist her famous lover, the aristocratic big-game hunter and aviator Denys Finch Hatton. When Beryl met him, he was already involved with Karen Blixen, the Danish-born baroness who would become known as Isak Dinesen, author of the memoir Out of Africa.

But Finch Hatton, who was 15 years older than Beryl, belonged to no woman. Charming and brilliant, he “was most himself in wild places,” Beryl says. “More than anyone I’d known, Denys understood how nothing ever holds still for us, or should. The trick is learning to take things as they come and fully, too, with no resistance or fear, not trying to grip them too tightly or make them bend.”

So until its tragic, inevitable end, the three of them were a love triangle: Beryl, Denys and Karen. “We had done a painful dance and lost a lot, we three, hurting one another and ourselves. But extraordinary things had happened, too. I would never forget any of them.”

Beryl Markham lived another 50 years after becoming world-famous, but Circling the Sunconcentrates only on the first part of her life, all the years leading up to her historic flight across the Atlantic in September 1936. McLain doesn’t even show Markham learning to fly until the final few chapters of her novel.

By then, the reader knows her very well, this tall, angular woman with the pale flyaway hair and the sharp profile. The mostly solitary life she led would not have been possible for most Englishwomen of her time, and even today it would be a difficult existence for a woman alone in Africa. McLain skillfully succeeds in portraying the inner life of a singular figure, painted vividly against a vast continent that was the only place Beryl Markham could ever belong.

Joyce Sáenz Harris is a Dallas freelance writer.

 

Circling the Sun

Paula McLain

(Ballantine, $28)

 

Plan your life

Paula McLain will appear at two events Wednesday:

At 1 p.m., she’ll have a short speaking engagement and book signing at the North Richland Hills Public Library, 9015 Grand Ave. Free. A noon reception, which includes a copy of the book, is $40. Details at library.nrhtx.com.

That evening, she’ll appear at Highland Park United Methodist Church, 3300 Mockingbird Lane, as part of Authors Live! The 7 p.m. lecture is free; a 6 p.m. reception, including a signed copy of the book, is $30 and must be reserved at least two days in advance by calling Highland Park United Methodist Church at 214-523-2240 or going to hpumc.org/authorslive.

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