Thursday, February 01, 2018

Fiction Review: Circling the Sun

I have heard many rave reviews of both The Paris Wife and Circling the Sun, Paula McLain's two latest best-selling novels about real-life women, so I was interested when my neighborhood book group chose Circling the Sun for our January selection. I wasn't sure I would like the novel much, though, since the subject matter - a female pilot in Africa in the early 1900's - wasn't of particular interest to me. I found that I enjoyed the book very much - far more than I expected to! All those rave reviews were right.

Beryl Markham was a real-life woman, and this novel tells the story of the first half of her life, spent mostly in Kenya, where she became the first female horse trainer in the British colony there and a record-setting pilot in the early years of aviation. The novel is written in first-person, from Beryl's perspective, and begins with her childhood in Kenya with her father. Her mother left Africa, along with Beryl's older brother, to return to England when Beryl was just four years old, so she grew up running wild on the family's horse farm. Though she felt abandoned and confused by her mother's departure, Beryl loved her life in the wilds of Africa, playing with her best friend, a native boy named Kibii, from the neighboring village. Beryl felt equally at home in the Kenyan native village and on her father's farm and grew up among horses, which eventually led to her determination to become a horse trainer.

I was pulled into Beryl's story right from the start and especially enjoyed the early sections describing her childhood. The diary-like approach made me feel like Beryl was confiding in me, and the descriptions of the beautiful but dangerous African countryside were immersive. In her later years, her portrayal of the British colonial society in the midst of that African wildness was fascinating (and sometimes appalling!). Beryl encountered many difficulties in her life, which I will leave for you to discover on your own. She was strong, though, and determined to follow her passions. I was rooting for her throughout the book. Not everyone in my book group loved the novel as much as I did. A few people disliked Beryl herself because of some of her relationships, but I felt that she made the best she could of a life filled with challenges and tragedies. Not only that, but Beryl became an early female hero, busting stereotypes about women, setting records, and excelling in both horse training and flying. I found Beryl's life to be very inspirational, and this novel to be engrossing and captivating. Now, I am also interested in reading The Paris Wife, which many women in my book group loved.

355 pages, Ballantine Books

Disclosure: I borrowed this book from the library. My review is my own opinion.

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