Friday, September 11, 2015

Review: Circling the Sun by Paula McLain

Title: Circling the Sun
Author: Paula McLain
Publisher:  Ballantine Books (July28, 2015)
ISBN: 9780345534187
Pages: 384 pages
How I Read It: eARC
Genre: historical fiction, Africa
My Rating: 4.5 cups 


Paula McLain, author of the phenomenal bestseller The Paris Wife, now returns with her keenly anticipated new novel, transporting readers to colonial Kenya in the 1920s. Circling the Sun brings to life a fearless and captivating woman—Beryl Markham, a record-setting aviator caught up in a passionate love triangle with safari hunter Denys Finch Hatton and Karen Blixen, who as Isak Dinesen wrote the classic memoir Out of Africa.

Brought to Kenya from England as a child and then abandoned by her mother, Beryl is raised by both her father and the native Kipsigis tribe who share his estate. Her unconventional upbringing transforms Beryl into a bold young woman with a fierce love of all things wild and an inherent understanding of nature’s delicate balance. But even the wild child must grow up, and when everything Beryl knows and trusts dissolves, she is catapulted into a string of disastrous relationships.

Beryl forges her own path as a horse trainer, and her uncommon style attracts the eye of the Happy Valley set, a decadent, bohemian community of European expats who also live and love by their own set of rules. But it’s the ruggedly charismatic Denys Finch Hatton who ultimately helps Beryl navigate the uncharted territory of her own heart. The intensity of their love reveals Beryl’s truest self and her fate: to fly.

Set against the majestic landscape of early-twentieth-century Africa, McLain’s powerful tale reveals the extraordinary adventures of a woman before her time, the exhilaration of freedom and its cost, and the tenacity of the human spirit.

My Thoughts:

"Before Kenya was Kenya, when it was millions of years old and yet still somehow new, the name belonged only to our most magnificent mountain."

With that first line of Chapter 1 Paula McLain drew me in and never let me go until the final page was turned. So begins her account of the life of Beryl Markham, a remarkable and resilient woman who became the first licensed female racehorse trainer in Kenya as well as the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic from east to west. This book begins with her unconventional upbringing in Africa and culminates with that famous flight in 1936. In between, we are witness to her successes and failures, triumphs and tragedies, loves and losses, and through it all, her deep and lasting connection to the country that became her home.

"I had come alive here, as if I'd been given a second birth, and a truer one. This was my home, and though one day it would all trickle through my fingers like so much red dust, for as long as childhood lasted it was a heaven fitted exactly to me. A place I knew by heart. The one place in the world I'd been made for."

McLain tells her tale with prose that is rich and immersive, full of breathtaking descriptions of the African landscape and thought-provoking passages that make one stop and ponder and then read them over again to savor every word. I knew nothing about Beryl Markham before reading this book, but it soon had me searching the internet to learn more about this fascinating woman. She was flawed and not always the most likable person, and yet, one could not help but be on her side because of her sheer determination and tenacity.

"But you've never been afraid of anything, have you?"
"I have, though," I said, surprised at my own emotion. "I've been terrified...I just haven't let that stop me."

It's hard not to admire such strength of will, particularly given the attitudes of the time, for she was unquestionably the master of her own fate and refused to be forced into a box or restricted by societal norms. She made her share of bad decisions, for which she paid the price - failed marriages, scandalous affairs - but time and again was able to rise from the ashes like a phoenix to recreate herself and move on in a new direction. A quality she shared with the land she so loved:

"It's always new. It always seems to be reinventing itself, doesn't it?"
"Kenya was forever shedding its skin and showing itself to you all over again."

Fans of Out of Africa will appreciate the further insight into Karen Blixen and Denys Finch Hatton given here as well as the interesting dynamics within the love triangle that existed between the three. However, even readers unfamiliar with that work will have no trouble following the story and should find great enjoyment in this book in its own right. I must confess I fall into that category, and I don't feel my appreciation was hindered in any way. I loved this book from cover to cover. And ultimately, while her relationship with Finch Hatton may have been the great romance of Beryl's life, it was only one part of her extraordinary life. All things considered, it seems perhaps her truest and most enduring love affair was actually with Africa itself, for it was there her free spirit was able to soar.

"...Leaving Kenya? I've never thought of that. I wouldn't be the same anywhere else."

This review is based on a complimentary copy from the publisher and provided through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. The quoted material may have changed in the final release.

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