Paula McLain’s second novel The Paris Wife reimagined the life of Hadley Richardson, Ernest Hemingway’s first wife. Her latest novel Circling the Sun is as exquisitely written as her previous novel; with the big difference that the beauty it evokes is not that of serene Paris, but lush Kenya in all its raw glory. Like The Paris Wife, Circling the Sun is a fictional autobiography of a marginalised woman. However, protagonist Beryl Markham, one of the first women to become a qualified horse trainer and a pioneering female aviator, is more headstrong and impressive than her previous heroine.
From the very first page the writing doesn’t fail to impress: it’s engaging and eloquent. The story begins with Beryl’s arrival in colonial Kenya as a young girl. Abandoned by her mother who returns to England, Beryl has a tomboyish childhood hunting with the local tribe and learning from her father to take care of horses. She idealises her father but “he was close-lipped, hoarding his words, hoarding his words as if he were afraid someone would make off with them, but he was different when he rode. He seems to like to talk then.” If she doesn’t inherit his farm she does inherit his love for horses and skills as a horse trainer.
Berly finds familial love in the Kipsigi tribe, learns Swahili and is inseparable from a boy named Kibii. Her childhood adventures and dreams are probably the highlight of McLain’s narrative. As the protagonist grows older she strives to stay true to her deep desires but soon enough she is forced to take up at least the partial role of a lady when her father finds a housekeeper (who also turns out be his mistress) to provide her with a feminine influence. Moreover, as she turns into a ‘lady’ Kibii becomes distant to the extent of acting like a stranger: “Things had once been so simple between us, when we weren’t afraid of anything, when we’d hunted in perfect lockstep.”
Circling the Sun is about one woman’s life of fearless adventure and mercurial relationships
Beryl is “rail thin” and “far more comfortable talking to horses and dogs than people”; hers is a complex but flawed character trapped in circumstances testing her free spirit. Her father’s financial troubles lead to him losing his farm and moving far away, which leaves her with no apparent choice but to accept the marriage proposal of an ambitious neighbouring farmer called Jock Purves. Married at the age of 16, she soon comes to regret her hasty marriage: “I didn’t belong to myself. I hadn’t since I decided to say yes to his proposal.” Soon she leaves her husband in search of independence and a string of affairs.
As the narrative progresses, we find ourselves oscillating between sympathy for and annoyance with Beryl. Among her many affairs is one with Denys Finch Hatton, the famous hero of Out of Africa. Beryl’s hopeless infatuation with him is so unlike her individualist nature that it’s less convincing than her surviving a lion attack.
The portrayal of colonialism is anything but romantic in Circling the Sun, and the writer does not hesitate to admit that the “White settlers were always keen on self-rule, which amounted to something more like total dominion of the territory. They saw Indians and Asians as outliers, to be fought off with sticks, if necessary. Africans were fine as long as they remained clear about their inferior state and didn’t want too much land”. However, the Kenya it portrays is a predominantly white Kenya which seemed more like a white man’s club, an exclusive territory, than a real country. “Though Kenya was large there was surprisingly little privacy in our colony,” says Beryl quite aptly because all the settlers tended to exclude those who were not white.
“When we first arrived, in 1904, the farm wasn’t anything but fifteen hundred acres of untouched bush and three weather-beaten huts. ‘This?’ my mother said, the air around her humming and shimmering as if it were alive. ‘You sold everything for this?’ ‘Other farmers are making a go of it in tougher places, Clara,’ my father said. ‘You’re not a farmer, Charles!’ she spat before bursting into tears. He was a horseman, in fact. What he knew was steeplechasing and foxhunting and the tame lanes and hedgerows of Rutland. But he’d seen paper flyers hawking cheap imperial land, and an idea had latched on to him that wouldn’t let go. We left Westfield House, where I was born, and travelled seven thousand miles, past Tunis and Tripoli and Suez, the waves like great grey mountains swallowing the sky. Then through Kilindini Harbour, in the port of Mombasa, which smelled of sharp spices and drying fish, and onto the snaking train bound for Nairobi, the windows boiling over with red dust. I stared at everything, completely thrilled in a way I hadn’t remembered feeling before. Whatever this place was, it was like nothing and nowhere else.” —Excerpt from the book
Circling the Sun is a light and moderately interesting read. However, it suffers from the same flaws as The Paris Wife, with a strong plot but soft execution, more suitable for the bestseller domain than the niche that is literary fiction. Moreover, the glorification of hunting and portrayal of safari as a pure way of connecting with nature is highly disturbing. Animals and nature, in this narrative, are as much a victim of colonial exploits as the lush land of Kenya. “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,” we are told. However, what the writer seems to forget is that Kenya, as a land, belongs more to those who had been living there for hundreds of years before the British decided to christen it Kenya.
The reviewer is an Ankara-based freelance writer and critic.
Circling the Sun
By Paula McLain
Ballantine Books, New York
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, October 2nd, 2016