Note, the format of my Short and Sweet reviews differs in that they simply comprise the book blurb and a short response (hence, the short and sweet). 

Circling the Sun by Paula McLain is based on the life of Beryl Markham, from her childhood in Kenya up to her late twenties. After finishing the book I looked up Beryl Markham, often described as Britain’s Amelia Earhart, and saw references to her as a determined, talented and charming woman who was no stranger to scandal (read this article for some background). This quote from Beryl gives you some insight into her character:

“A life has to move or it stagnates. Even this life, I think. Every tomorrow ought not to resemble every yesterday.” – Beryl Markham

Here’s the blurb:

As a young girl, Beryl Markham was brought to Kenya from Britain by parents dreaming of a new life. For her mother, the dream quickly turned sour, and she returned home; Beryl was brought up by her father, who switched between indulgence and heavy-handed authority, allowing her first to run wild on their farm, then incarcerating her in the classroom. The scourge of governesses and serial absconder from boarding school, by the age of sixteen Beryl had been catapulted into a disastrous marriage – but it was in facing up to this reality that she took charge of her own destiny.

Scandalizing high society with her errant behaviour, she left her husband and became the first woman ever to hold a professional racehorse trainer’s licence. After falling in with the notoriously hedonistic and gin-soaked Happy Valley set, Beryl soon became embroiled in a complex love triangle with the writer Karen Blixen and big game-hunter Denys Finch Hatton (immortalized in Blixen’s memoir Out of Africa). It was this unhappy affair which set tragedy in motion, while awakening Beryl to her truest self, and to her fate: to fly.

McLain’s novel draws a vivid portrait of a complicated young woman, who, lacking a mother’s guidance, finds herself thrust into a world of expectations as she nears womanhood. However, forcing her to be someone she’s not doesn’t work – Markham is too strong a character to be tied down to must-dos-and-don’ts. This comes at a heavy price, including failed marriages and the removal of her son from her care. Yet, she rises above societal expectations and follows the path she feels is hers – ultimately, this is flying. McLain’s portrait reflects the contradictions in Markham’s life, of appearing strong but feeling weak (whether emotionally or because of society’s expectations), of wanting to be free but wanting to be tied to one particular man, of rejecting the way a woman should behave and proving herself in a man’s world, but rather liking the idea of being feminine and attractive. She’s not made out to be a saint – her flaws are readily apparent – but nonetheless the strength of character that propels her many accomplishments is celebrated.

The writing is at times poetic, especially where the varying landscapes of Africa are described: “the mountains were an inky blue and seemed to shrink and flatten against the distance”. McLain’s style lends itself well to creating a sense of place; I haven’t been to Africa, but I felt like I was there, and I wanted to be there to see its beauty with my own eyes. Yes, the book is a character piece, but while Beryl is the heroine, Africa is no less a character in this intelligent book.

Available from good bookstores (Virago RRP $29.99AU). My copy was courtesy of Hachette Australia.



Monique Mulligan

Monique Mulligan

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