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Circling the Sun: A Novel Paperback – May 31, 2016
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“Paula McLain is considered the new star of historical fiction, and for good reason. Fans of The Paris Wife will be captivated by Circling the Sun, which . . . is both beautifully written and utterly engrossing.”—Ann Patchett, Country Living
“Paula McLain cements herself as the writer of historical fictional memoir with Circling the Sun, giving vivid voice to Beryl Markham, a singular, extraordinary woman. In McLain’s confident hands, Markham crackles to life, and we readers truly understand what made a woman so far ahead of her time believe she had the power to soar.”—Jodi Picoult, author of Leaving Time
“Enchanting . . . A worthy heir to [Isak] Dinesen, McLain will keep you from eating, sleeping, or checking your e-mail—though you might put these pages down just long enough to order airplane tickets to Nairobi. . . . What’s certain is that the reluctantly earthbound armchair reader will cherish this gift for the hidden adventurer in all of us. Like Africa as it’s so gorgeously depicted here, this novel will never let you go.”—The Boston Globe
“Famed aviator Beryl Markham is a novelist’s dream. . . . [A] wonderful portrait of a complex woman who lived—defiantly—on her own terms.”—People (Book of the Week)
“Circling the Sun soars.”—Newsday
“Captivating . . . [an] irresistible novel.”—The Seattle Times
“Like its high-flying subject, Circling the Sun is audacious and glamorous and hard not to be drawn in by. Beryl Markham may have married more than once, but she was nobody’s wife.”—Entertainment Weekly
“[An] eloquent evocation of Beryl’s daring life.”—O: The Oprah Magazine
“Richly textured . . . Markham’s life is the stuff of legend. . . . McLain has created a voice that is lush and intricate to evoke a character who is enviably brave and independent.”—NPR
“Bold, absorbing fiction.”—New York Daily News
“Paula McLain has such a gift for bringing characters to life. I loved discovering the singular Beryl Markham, with all her strengths and passions and complexities, a woman who persistently broke the rules, despite the personal cost. She’s a rebel in her own time, and a heroine for ours.”—Jojo Moyes, author of Me Before You
“By the last pages, readers will hate to say goodbye to such an irresistible narrator.”—Miami Herald
“Paula McLain brings Beryl to glorious life, portraying a woman with a great many flaws that seem to result from her zest for life and inability to follow the roles expected of women in the 1920s and ’30s.”—St. Louis Post-Dispatch
“Amelia Earhart gets all the airtime, but this pilot had the juicier past. . . . McLain crafts a story readers won’t soon forget.”—Good Housekeeping
“With a sharp eye for detail and style to spare, Paula McLain captures the nuances of complex relationships, the rigidity of social conventions, and the wide skies and breathtaking vistas of Africa.”—Christina Baker Kline, author of Orphan Train
“Set in 1920s Kenya, this fictionalized history of the beautiful, high-flying aviator Beryl Markham is as luminous as its headstrong heroine. An exhilarating ride.”—Family Circle
“Paula McLain is yet another twenty-first-century woman who can write rings around the hyper-masculine men who dominate so much of American fiction.”—Liz Smith
“McLain’s skill at blending fact and fiction, which dazzled readers in The Paris Wife, is on full display. . . . Circling the Sun is a masterful story of hardship, courage and love.”—Shelf Awareness
From the Hardcover edition.
About the Author
Paula McLain is the New York Times bestselling author of the novels Circling the Sun, The Paris Wife, and A Ticket to Ride, the memoir Like Family: Growing Up in Other People’s Houses, and two collections of poetry. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, Good Housekeeping, O: The Oprah Magazine, Town & Country, The Guardian, The Huffington Post, and elsewhere. She lives in Ohio with her family.
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Thirty some years ago I read Out of Africa, West with the Night, and biographies of both Beryl Markham and Karen Blixen. I was mesmerized by the characters of Beryl and Karen and their intertwining lives and also by the glimpses of Africa gleaned from their writings. So I was anxious to revisit the characters and places in Paula McClain’s new novel about Beryl Markham, Circling the Sun.
In some ways it was a rewarding read. McClain’s prose is lush, fluid, crisp. I noted that McClain has a degree in poetry, and her writing style attests to that fact. The novel covers the span of Beryl’s life from childhood to her thirties. I feel that McClain did a fine job of pulling out the important phases of Beryl’s life during that time frame and connecting them together in a compelling narrative. Also, I applaud McClain’s depiction of Beryl as strong willed and self-determine. And more importantly, we see that Beryl is talented and competent in her pursuits of horse training and later flying.
But I feel there are other aspects of Beryl’s characterization that miss the mark and do so by a long shot. Beryl is endowed with a wisdom and philosophical bent that can only come from years of living. The bride of 16 in the novel seems more patient, more knowing, more socially skilled than the characters around her. McClain does rightfully depict Beryl as a character who is victimized by the abandonment and betrayal of family and friends, but the Beryl of the novel rises to a level of magnanimity and nobility that doesn’t match the depictions of her in the conversations and writings of her contemporaries and biographers. In Circling the Sun, we see a wounded Beryl who comes to the aid of her faltering parents and who chooses to simply ignore the vicious rumors that plague her life. We are lead to believe that tales of Beryl’s ruthless pursuit of unattainable men and her shocking disregard for friendships and pubic decorum are concoctions fostered by gossips and society vigilantes. I don’t think so. There are too many witnesses, too many friends, too many sources and biographers who paint Beryl as an opportunist with little regard for the feelings of others.
So I find McClain’s portrait of Beryl nearly impossible to accept, and I find it hard to believe that McClain actually holds Beryl in such pristine regard. She (McClain), after all, has read the same bios and articles I have. McClain tells us that she found a kinship with Beryl because she, too, was abandoned by her mother at an early age, only to have her own mother reappear when she was in her 20’s in the same way that Beryl’s mother did. So then, hmmmm . . . perhaps McClain has over identified with her character, and the Beryl she has created is mythologized in a way that is untrue to her and also unfair to Beryl and to us, the readers. Beryl’s true merits and accomplishments are well worth exploring and celebrating, and I believe she can be viewed as a more complex character and still a sympathetic character when the dark side of her personality is part of the narrative.
Interestingly enough, I came across an article in Town and Country magazine “An Insanely Glamorous Love Triangle” written by McClain herself in which she says,
"The mystery of the woman [Beryl] herself is only deepened by her writing— lyrical descriptions of paradise layered with pointed subterfuge. Instead of exposing the things that hurt her—her mother, for instance, or her father's betrayal—she romanticizes the difficulties of the natural world and of Green Hills, her father's farm, faultless as any Eden before the Fall."
Really? Yes, the descriptions are lyrical, but Beryl does not describe her father’s farm as an African paradise. And the purpose of West With The Night is not to provide an expose of her “damaged” childhood. It is rather a celebration of the life she embraced in Africa, both the good and the bad. Her vignettes are a collection of stories about encounters and friendships with the land, the animals, and the people around her.
In speaking of Karen, Denys, and Beryl, in the article Markham says, “These three were not simple people. And if they were cagey and difficult sometimes—unreliable narrators of their own lives—even so I can find something to admire in it.”
She goes on to say, “These shadows aren't visible in Out of Africa, which mythologizes Finch Hatton and over-perfects their love story.”
Those of us who have read Karen’s Out of Africa know that Karen and Denys’ love affair is not portrayed at all in her writings. Denys is only a marginal character because that is not what her book is about. Out of Africa, like West With The Night, is a collection of stories about one woman’s encounters with the African world and the people in it.
So, sorry, Ms. McClain, but I feel you are the unreliable story teller, not Ms. Dinesen or Ms. Markham. I can only appreciate and applaud a historical character brought to life when I feel it is an honest depiction. I don’t think your depiction of Beryl is an honest depiction.
McClain uses first person, presenting the narrative through the consciousness of Beryl. This lets the reader inside Beryl’s mind. Since place is important to Beryl, and contributes to who she is, McClain brings Kenya to the page with authentic description. Beryl’s childhood in the bush with native children gave her a fearless need to continue to explore untamed territory. This becomes her motivation for life.
Beryl wonders who she is. Her unconventional upbringing empowers her to push the boundaries of female experience, while at the same time she feels uneasy in the society of other women. On one level she is alone in the world. The push and pull of fearlessness and vulnerability are part of Beryl’s experience.
Circling the Sun explores two desires present in most humans: the desire to transcend everyday life, and the acute knowledge of being a vulnerable, fallible, mortal. Beryl was all of this. She ponders her experience of almost being killed by a lion whose owners thought the lion was tamed. Beryl understands that lions will always be lions. It is their nature to pry on other mammals. Beryl translates this knowledge to humans. Her mother will never realize she abandoned Beryl. Denys cannot be domesticated. People cannot be pushed beyond their limits, just as the lion can never be tamed.
I was captured by the beautiful descriptions of Africa and the different seasons. The life of the Colonial British in Kenya during the twenties and thirties was educational for me. I enjoyed reading about that lifestyle and the "rules" of behavior for the Colonialists.
This book has led me to read Beryl Markham's autobiography West With The Night. I have the copy with photographs. I was especially interested in seeing one of Denys Finch Hatton.