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Circling the Sun

posted by: September 8, 2015 - 7:00am

Cover art for Circling the SunThere are some books you just do not want to end. Paula McLain's new historical fiction novel Circling the Sun is just that kind. Richly atmospheric and thick with romantic nostalgia for 1920s British colonial Kenya, this literary treat is like eating a ripe peach over the kitchen sink: satisfying and juicy with just the right amount of messiness.

 

It is the story of aviator Beryl Markham, who in 1936 became the first woman to fly solo from east to west across the Atlantic. But McLain feels Markham was just as noteworthy for her sometimes scandalous earlier on-ground adventures.. This lesser-known past comes to life in a dialogue-fueled, first-person narrative set magnificently "before Kenya was Kenya."

 

Irreverent and unsettled, the former Beryl Clutterbuck is a trailblazer. She was one of the first successful racehorse trainers of her era in a time when male trainers dominated. She bucked tradition at every turn, owing her independence to her upbringing. Abandoned early on by her mother, she was reared by her horse-training father and influenced by the local Kipsigis tribe. It is not surprising that this independent and fearless young woman's natural ambitions are at odds with the times. Her relationships were often rollercoaster, unhappy affairs. Even the love of her life, Denys Finch Hatton, is not hers alone. She shares the seductive safari hunter with her friend, the hospitable, aristocratic coffee farmer Karen Blixen, who would go on to write Out of Africa under the pen name Isak Dinesen. It is a perilous love triangle that is the heart of the story.

 

McLain, whose previous book was the hugely popular The Paris Wife, about Hemingway's first spouse Hadley Richardson, deftly recasts Markham as avant-garde if not ethically suspect. The ability to make us care about this heroine from the other side of the world almost 100 years ago is testament to McLain's richly textured storytelling and smart supply of interesting characters from drunks and expats to tribesmen and royalty. If it makes you want to read Markham's own superb memoir West with the Night or revisit Dinesen's Out of Africa, McLain has done her job.


 
 

Revised: November 18, 2015