It’s been a long time since I read a book that captured the spirit of a place. I found it in the way Patrick Rothfuss wrote the University in “The Name of the Wind.” I found it in the way Fitzgerald captured the 1920s in “The Beautiful and Damned,” in all its glamour and hardship. But despite Paula McClain’s success with “The Paris Wife,” I wasn’t expecting it in her newest novel, “Circling the Sun.” What I thought would be, at worst, an overwrought faux-memoir, or at best, a historically accurate but dry narrative, turned out to be one of the most beautiful novels I’ve read in years.
Set in colonial Kenya in the 1920s, “Circling” introduces readers to Beryl Markham, a fearless, captivating woman with a passion for training horses and setting flying records. As the novel unwinds, Beryl finds herself embroiled in a passionate love triangle with safari hunter Denys Finch Hatton and Karen Blixen, both memorialized in Isak Dinesen’s famous “Out of Africa.”
Beryl, who was brought to Africa on the eve of colonization and subsequently abandoned by her mother, transforms in her lifetime much like the country around her does. Raised by her father and the native Kipsigis tribe, Beryl finds herself first in the wild, in the tall bush surrounded by elephants and antelope and all manner of bugs. As the years pass, she grows up, seeking out a life for herself in which she can co-exist as the wild daughter of Africa she was raised as and the polite, poised British woman she is expected to become.
Carrying the weight of her abandonment and her struggle with balance and trust, Beryl steps from one unhealthy relationship to the next, searching for love and finding distrust, jealousy and greed in its place. She makes a name for herself training horses, a rarity for women at the time, and falls in with the Happy Valley set, a decadent, bohemian community of European expats who live and love by their own set of rules. In this group she meets Denys, the one person she feels knows who she truly is. Denys teaches her not only how to love and how to accept herself, but also the skill she needed to find her true calling: flying.
Stylized as a memoir, “Circling” gives readers an inside glimpse at Beryl’s fears and passions. The book’s structure, though chronological and spanning decades, doesn’t lag or drag on unncessarily. The chapters are short without being sparse, and the narrative style, while flowery and filled with metaphors, does not come off as reaching, maudlin or overwritten.
“Circling” would appeal to readers of many genres. Historical fiction- and memoir-lovers are the obvious go-to, but readers of classic lit (think Hemingway or Woolf) would feel at home as well. Add a reread of “Out of Africa” as your pre-read or follow-up book choice.
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