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Con: I wanted more from this book, which perhaps wasn't fair since I'd been content enough with McLain's "The Paris Wife", even though it had all the elements which properly limited it to the Women's Fiction bestseller category. But here is a daring woman of adventure, Beryl Markham, who braves being abandoned by her mother, a father who mostly ignores her, a lion attack, marriage to a drunk macho settler and becoming Kenya's first woman to be licensed as a horse trainer, all by the age of 18, and what we get for the first half of the book, is a nicely dressed bodice ripper. I had to quit halfway through, leaving Beryl to pine away for the love of her life, Denys Finch Hatton, who also happened to be her friend Karen Blixen's great love (as played by Robert Redford in the movie "Out of Africa"). But disturbingly enough, Paula McLain's description of Beryl's lion mauling and her first experience of bedding Finch Hatton, whom she actively and quite literally pursued, read in a similar sentimental semi-erotic vein:
“Paddy’s jaw closed on my thigh above the knee. I felt his dagger teeth and his wet tongue. The strangely cool feel of his mouth. My head swam as I smelled my own blood, and then he released me to bellow.” That's the mauling, not the lovemaking, for those of you who may (understandably) confuse the two.
A few chapters on, we get a sampling of Markham and and her lover going at it for the first time: “The night beyond the window had hushed itself as well, and there was only the fact of our two bodies rippled with shadow. We pressed to get closer, to push through something. . . .”
I wanted to ignore the niggling voice that said I couldn't take McLain's writing seriously to try to engage with the "real" Beryl of the writer's imagination and flow along with the story, but passages like the ones above made me decide to call it quits. Besides, I've had "West With the Night", Markham's 1942 memoir, sitting on my shelf for much too long. The same memoir that reportedly made Hemingway spit with jealousy, prompting him to write to his publisher “But this girl, who is to my knowledge very unpleasant and we might even say a high-grade bitch can write rings around all of us who consider ourselves as writers.”
I think I'll be better served with Beryl's story in Markham's own words.
38 of 39 people found this review helpful
Beryl Markham is a fascinating real-life character who, based on highly researched biographies, was also very difficult and flawed. For an excellent, and I think more accurate reflection of Beryl Markham's life, read "The Lives of Beryl Markham" by Errol Trzebinski. In "Circling the Sun" the author presents a PG version of Markham's life, glossing over many facts and incidents that reflect Markham in a bad light, and spinning most other incidents to leave Markham innocent and in the right. In doing so, the author either ignores important incidents or tortures the facts to reconstruct them in Markham's favor. I heard the author interviewed on NPR and she said that she wrote the book from her home in Cleveland, and that since Colonial Kenya doesn't exist anymore, she was forced to write the book from her home and "just use her imagination". But she doesn't just use her imagination, she liberally cribs from "West with the Night" (a beautiful book about Markham's child and young adulthood in Kenya, whose authorship is controversial; the formal author is Beryl Markham, but there is strong proof that it was written by her 3rd husband), a book that is intentionally focused only on what was brave and remarkable about Beryl Markham. I love "West with the Night" too, and it's what led me to read anything else I could find about B. Markham. By contrast, when listening to "Circling the Sun", I had the impression the author swallowed "West with the Night" whole and launched her book from her admiration of the B. Markham portrayed in it. Any facts that collided with her vision of B. Markham were, as I say above, either ignored or spun to fit her image. Her Beryl Markham is sad, victimized and tender--but brave and true at heart. The author's need for that type of heroine does not do justice to the true Beryl Markham--a woman who was, unarguably remarkable and brave--but who was also sometimes heartless, cruel, selfish and highly flawed. If you want a version of Beryl Markham guaranteed to leave you mildly impressed and undisturbed you will like "Circling the Sun". I prefer the fascinating version that is the result of others' deep research: The complicated, amazing, infuriating Beryl Markham.
31 of 34 people found this review helpful