Circling the Sun: A Novel. Paula McLain. Random House Publishing Group. July 2015. 384 pp. ISBN#: 9780345534187.
Put away your notions of how a woman should behave in the 1920s. Instead picture a woman whose initial love was for the wilds of Africa, in particular Nairobi where her father raised horses. Imagine her life after her mother deserted them with a brother and returned to Africa, not to return for years upon years upon years. Where does one fill that aching hole, especially when her father acted like he’d never been married and even chose another woman as a common-law wife and not a nice one at that? Beryl Markham turns to the animals on their farm, especially the horses her father is raising to race, and the natives who place such immense pride in acting kindly, friendly and in becoming men and women of the tribe. Their focus is on community spirit and strength, not on personal happiness. Perhaps this is a subtle key to everything that follows.
Efforts to school Beryl are futile. She’s a child of the land, her education in watching the foals born, in learning she cannot wander alone when she is fiercely attacked by a lion but survives to tell the story, and in becoming a skilled rider whose sensitivity and skill allow her to merge with the spirit of the horse she is racing. Later she will marry but not for love. Thus begin the rumors and gossip about her flirtations with other married men, including even Prince David of England.
Then comes what most well-read people know was the scandal of all time, Beryl’s rivalry with Karen Blixen over their love for Denys Finch Hatton. This is the story many movie lovers know was fleshed out in Isak Dinesen’s Out of Africa. Beryl’s evolving love for Denys begins with a very comfortable friendship, epitomized by their sharing of Walt Whitman’s poetry about the “wildness” of animals that is more important than the vicissitudes of men and woman. That wildness is the essence of their relationship, a spirit that even Karen Blixen admits is the spark of a great love. While others are busy scandal-mongering, Beryl just lives her life with her passion for horse racing and eventually for flying airplanes.
Ironically, the reader can feel the peace and beauty of Africa when reading Beryl’s observations about the African countryside or when she’s reaching out to her favorite horses but at the same time tense up at the convoluted relationships that are always up and down and very rarely stable for more than a few evenings. This is Paula McLain’s remarkable skill, to describe with almost supernatural connection and to sense what lies in the depths of men and women who are always searching for that something or someone but too restless and yearning to settle down with any one person. Is it linked to the abandonment she suffered as a child? The reader must decide, but remarkably Karen Blixen is the same in spite of a very stable childhood and background. Finally, one absorbs the value of struggle for what one is passionate about and this is lovely, lovely, lovely wherever it appears on multiple pages.
Circling the Sun: A Novel is beautifully crafted writing that far exceeds the writing in her previous novel, A Paris Wife. This is very special historical fiction at its best and perceptive readers who want more than just stereotypical stories are in for a fine treat/read! Highly recommended!