Thursday, May 21, 2020

Circling the Sun by Paula McLain

Circling the Sun
Paula McLain

Historical Fiction - 2015 (Ballantine Books)
Audiobook (Hardcover - 366 pages)


Set in between 1910 and 1940s, Circling the Sun is a historical fiction novel set in colonial Kenya. The story, based on true life, follows the independent Beryl Markham as she matures against the backdrop of the wild bush. After moving from England, Beryl's mother takes her younger brother, Dickie, and deserts the family. Beryl is raised by her father with the additional influence of the Kipsigis tribe sharing their estate. 

Beryl becomes very confident and determined, working to learn the trade of horse training in a social set that doesn't quite accept this type of ruggedness in a woman. She soon falls in with the Happy Valley set, a group of European settlers of similar age. The friendships she develops include those with Karen Blixen, also known as Tania, who wrote the memoir Out of Africa under the pseudonym of Isak Dinesen.


I had read (and loved) McLain's The Paris Wife a few years ago as the result of another stellar recommendation from my friend, Patti. When it comes to historical fiction recommendations, she hasn't steered me wrong yet. Circling the Sun was available on audio from my library, so I figured I'd go ahead and give it a whirl...going in completely blind.

The prologue threw me off quite a bit, as it starts with Beryl flying an airplane and then the plot abruptly shifts back thirty years and lands the reader in Africa. That was a little disorienting and really had me questioning where things were going, but I tried to put it at the back of my mind and moved on just the same.

The start was definitely a slow burn. McLain writes very atmospheric descriptions, but things build quite slowly. The writing is beautiful and lyrical, capturing both the beauty and the danger of early 20th century Kenya incredibly well. There is a methodical inclusion of conflicts every couple of chapters, which helped to keep the pacing steady and made the story maintain interest. These instances were sometimes quite traumatic and intense events, but they still felt as if they rolled smoothly with the rest of the prose. There is something somewhat hypnotizing about the way the novel is crafted.

Beryl is a sympathetic character, despite her flaws. In fact, that's one of the things I liked a lot about this novel. All of the characters are unapologetically imperfect. Granted, they are based on real individuals and so have a tendency to be human regardless, but the way they are crafted just makes them so fantastic. There were things I definitely did not like about Beryl as a person, but I was still very interested and invested in her journey. 

The story celebrates Beryl's successes as well as wandering through her struggles and failures in her bid for independence, something quite difficult for a woman in her day and age. I was quite impressed with the story from start to finish and wouldn't mind learning more about the real Beryl Markham. In fact, Circling the Sun generated a strong interest in me to know more about this particular period of time and cast of characters. I plan to follow this read up with Beryl's autobiography as well as Isak Dinesen's Out of Africa in the future.


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