Written by Katie Condo
Circling the Sun is the fictional biography of Beryl Markham, a woman who by all accounts was ahead of her time, and written from Beryl’s perspective. Not only did she view herself just as capable of doing anything a man could do, she thought she could do it better. The audacity!
Author Paula McLain uses this enigmatic character as a pretext to display a variety of dramatic political and social situations. Beryl, herself, is the key to what makes this work. McLain makes Beryl irresistible, a vivacious and engaging character, surrounding her extraordinary life story with just enough mystery to keep you guessing throughout as Beryl finds herself in one unique situation after another, drawing you in and keeping you reading. You find yourself wanting her to succeed, even when she makes mistakes.
She begins life as the daughter of a struggling horse trainer who, after being abandoned by her mother, are left to fend for themselves. Throughout her life Beryl realizes she’ll never fit into the conventional roles that society has placed before her, destined to ride and fly outside the lines – often literally. She becomes the first female licensed horse trainer in the world. Later, she takes to the skies as one of the first female aviators.
The other reason this novel thrives is because of the setting itself. The author juxtaposes turn of the century Africa with turn of the century London, allowing the reader to be swept away and believed that they are part of Beryl’s adventure. With Africa as a backdrop, the reader is free to believe in anything, and therefore free to believe in Beryl. Africa is the place where Beryl is free to live the way she wishes.
London, by contrast, is its total opposite. Along with Beryl, the reader is exposed to the typical strictures of femininity in the early twentieth century. Readers are allowed to feel Beryl’s frustration at the obstacles placed in the way at upward mobility. It’s no surprise that Beryl returns to Africa with her heart a little worse for wear.
Speaking of heartache, this wouldn’t be much of a sweeping epic without a love affair or two, and Beryl’s story is no exception. She loves all over the spectrum; she finds herself attracted to someone beneath her socially, and then another who is way out of her reach. Of course, it helps that both of these men are just as driven as Beryl. Somehow, something always gets in the way. It’s no surprise that Beryl once again finds herself flying solo.
McLain’s writing style is likable and accessible, allowing each of her characters to have their own unique voice, be they princes, hunters, or horsemen. Life in their world requires each to stand on their own, and our peek into colonial Africa and how it changes through Beryl’s lifetime allows us to view just how precarious that existence can be.
Circling the Sun is a definite read if you like the following: sweeping adventure; engaging love story; suspense; or simply all of the above. However, the most engaging thing about this fictionalized account is Beryl Markham herself. Paul McLain’s easy style allows readers to become swept up for the ride, and considering the events presented here, oh what a ride that is.