Circling the Sun by Paula McClain
I used to play the soundtrack to the film Out of
Africa to relax him and to get him to fall asleep.
The sweeping, expansive theme kept running
through my mind as I read Circling the Sun. Paula
McClain's novel is the story of real-life Beryl
Markham, a remarkable woman best known for
flying solo across the Atlantic from Europe the U.S.
and for training race horses while she lived in
Kenya. At a time when women were expected to
wear white linen and fan themselves on the
veranda, Beryl was forced to marry at 14 when
her father's horse farm failed and he moved away.
She had two choices: come with him and a step
mother who disliked her and stay in Africa and
marry someone she barely knew. The marriage
was doomed from the start but it gave Beryl a
chance to start her own horse training facility and
figure out who she was. Meanwhile, she met, and
socialized with, many of the well-to-do white settlers who viewed Kenya as a way to make money and escape the confines of European society. It was here that she befriended famed author Karen Blixen, aka Isak Dinesen, whose autobiographical novel Out of Africa would come to define life of an expatriate in Nairobi. Blixen's affair with hunter Denis Finch Hatton fascinated Beryl and she began her own affair with Hatton, a love triangle which would continue off and on for the rest of his life.
The novel is beautifully written, redolent of the wildness and beauty of Africa at the beginning of the 20th century. The author makes you feel the blinding heat and heartbeat of the nearby tribes, smell the frangipani and wild lilies. McClain's ability to capture the indomitable spirit of Beryl as she went through the heartbreaking loss of her farm, saying goodbye to family and a love for a man who would never really love her back drew me in, experiencing with her the choices she was forced to make. It's important to keep in mind the timeframe the characters are in; women didn't have many choices, especially without a man by your side. In some ways, the story was a Downton Abbey in Africa, where reputation was everything and it took incredible courage to step outside of convention in order to survive. This novel made me interested in reading Ms Markham's autobiography, West With the Night. Listen to John Barry's amazing soundtrack as you read this. You'll imagine yourself flying over the African plain feeling like you can do anything.