Beryl Markham was a remarkable woman, eminently worthy of celebration and eternal commemoration. An aviation pioneer, she was the first woman to successfully fly across the Atlantic from east to west, thereby cementing her place in history. Before Paula McLain’s novel, Circling the Sun, I’d never heard of her; afterwards, I immediately began searching for her memoir, West With the Night. Because, though McLain’s novel is magnificent, it barely scratches the surface of Markham’s many achievements.
Rather than have her record-breaking flight be the novel’s focus, it bookends McLain’s story. The author leads the reader to that daring feat, delving back into Markham’s childhood, and progression into adulthood; a journey punctuated by misadventures, scandals, broken-hearts, and an unparalleled determination to mould something more out of life; to break the shackles society had latched around her. Her solo flight across the Atlantic is worthy of aplomb; her refusal to accept the societal constraints and gender assumptions of the day should be legendary.
Circling the Sun begins in 1904 when Beryl Cutterbuck and her family leave England for Kenya. While her mother isn’t suited to life in Africa, and very quickly returns to London, Beryl finds harmony in the landscape, and remains with her father, whose horsemanship seeps into her Beryl’s DNA. Indeed, though her solo flight is her highlighted achievement, Markham was Kenya’s first female horse trainer, and a highly-regarded one at that.
Beryl’s life boasts the narrative of a soap opera, and a lesser-skilled author might lose themselves in the twists and turns of her personal life. But McLain, utilizing a first-person perspective, keeps these events grounded and rooted in pure, undulated human emotion. Some of Beryl’s choices are questionable, but they are always understandable, and McLain provides great insight into one of history’s pioneering women.
Circling the Sun is an exquisite novel, compelling and memorable, and another jewel in Paula McLain’s crown. It is, without question, one of 2015’s best reads.