Circling the Sun by Paula McLain

In honor of this novel, I would like to begin this review with a little history quiz. The following will be questions to clue you into who this book is about.

Question One: Who was the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic from East to West?    (The answer is not Amelia Earhart.)

Question Two: Who was the first female racehorse trainer in Kenya?

Question Three: Who aided in pioneering the air scout system for safaris?

Question Four: Who lived against the societal views of his or her time period?

Any guesses? To be fair, I wouldn’t have had any either. It’s incredible how incredible people are lost in time. But, to answer those questions, her name was Beryl Markham.


Beryl was born October 26th, 1902. If you remember from your history classes, the early nineteen hundreds was a tumultuous time period of progression and violence. Leaps and bounds were made in engineering and technology that no psychic or fortune teller could have ever predicted, it was a time period where people were livid with potential and hope. On the other side of things, one could say politics and humanity fell short. Imperialism was at it’s height, countries owned and restricted people and various foreign nations. Our story begins in Kenya, under British colonial rule.

Although Beryl was originally from England, her family moved to a small farm when she was only four. Africa was the only home she ever truly new, and remarked multiples time within this book, to be her love, her comfort, to be her. As her family farmed struggled, her family struggled as well. Resulting in a split of mother and son returning to England and a father and daughter team training horses in Africa.

Beryl’s father was, arguably, one of the most influential and important relationships she ever had. For years they struggled together, teaching each other, respecting one another, and being a partnership in their racing endeavors. Beryl never completed formal education, from very early on she struggled to remain as her father’s partner on the farm.

For years, the duo made it by. But shortly after Beryl turned 16, the financial circumstances worsened. Her father needed to sell their farm and take up occupation under someone else. Beryl could either follow her father and his lover to the new residence a suitable distance away or marry a man her elder, not her lover, and stay in the town she loved. Beryl chose matrimony.

Shortly after the nuptials and honeymoon, their relationship quickly dissolved into a vindictive and at times violent correspondence. Seeking her own way in the world, still at a ripe young age, she mentored at a father’s friends farm, a man that was basically her surrogate father. While on the farm, she studied restlessly in order to obtain her license as a racehorse trainer. During that time period, she also balanced an affair with another trainer at the farm and the perception of a devoted wife. As all delicate webs we weave crash and fall, so did her’s. Her husband brutishly stormed a local community hot spot, beat-up her surrogate father, and threatened Beryl. Resulting in Beryl being forced from her mentor’s farm, as well as landing him in the hospital for quite some time. Beryl returned home, to her husband, and demanded a divorce.

markham_360x450_0Beryl worked for the next couple of years from dawn to midnight. She scoured for any collection to afford her divorce in addition to buying her things back, like her beloved horse, Pegasus. After what seemed like an entirety of strife and trouble, Beryl was able to leave her marriage in the past, riding away with her trainer certification. She was the first female racehorse trainer in Kenya.

Her life never got easy, though. Gossip followed her through every door and race. It didn’t help that her love life was unconventional for the time. She allegedly fell in love with various high societies figures, one being a renaissance man who was already, at least publicly, devoted to another woman. This entanglement would last through every hardship, relationship, country, and achievement.

Mrs. Beryl Markham WavingWith every winning race, her notoriety grew, strengthening the tangles that already noosed themselves around her. For a time, she left for England in search of a doctor willing to do an abortion. When she returned, she carried along another entanglement. An older gentlemen she had believed to be her sponsor-home and in work, under the assumption of an unspoken agreement between the mismatched pair. However, this relationship, like many, stirred the gossip pool and tightened around Beryl. With another relationship fizzing out, Beryl returned to independent work. Training as a trainer of her own invention, her own name and company, working alongside her childhood friend.

Things seemed to be working out for Beryl for a short time. She met another man in town, one who promised more forward thinking, one who promised Beryl everything she could have ever asked for. They married a short time later, traveled through Europe, bought their own farm and racehorses, and even brought Beryl’s father back to work with her. It was a euphoric situation for Beryl. She had the stability she had never known, her father had returned, although she did not love her husband as she had others, he was her partner not her majesty. As things had unraveled before, strings started to pull apart ever so slowly. With her new husband first growing nervous by her actions. Then becoming bitter towards her former lowers and still friends. When Beryl became pregnant, the fighting rained like a thunderstorm in a silent drought. Almost immediately, Beryl was forced to return to England until the safe delivery of their child.

However, not even that could have gone smoothly and easily. Gervase Markham, her son, was born with a birth defect where a rectum and anal cavity never formed. For months, their weak son went through surgery after surgery to create one. Beryl remained in England with her husband’s family, living as the enemy among saints. “It was her riding that did this,” the family whispered. Through her stay, she was repeatedly visited by Prince Henry, Duke of Gloucester, son of George V. Rumors, one again, took flight. Whether or not there was ever an entanglement between the two is still unknown, Beryl refused to respond to anymore stories being told about her. However, Queen Mary established a lifetime annuity for Beryl in efforts to separate her from her son and keep the family away from societal scandal.

Beryl was not pleased to leave her son behind, but understood that he was too weak to live out in Africa. His father swept him away to a recovery center in Germany. Gervase Markham lived to the age of 46, dying from a car crash in Paris. Although Gervase and Beryl were never close, Gervase continued to be proud of his mother and her accomplishments. Defying the poisons’ his father’s family spout.

beryl-markham-02In an effort to reconquer her identity, in her mid-twenties, she left her training practice to her father’s supervision and took-up aviation. Through this time period, she rekindled certain friendships and love interests. By the age of 28, Beryl Markham was the first female pilot to fly cross-Atlantic from East to West.

With her new found skill, Beryl worked with a friend to pioneer a system of animal scouting from the air to inform safari guides. For the rest of her life, Beryl would enthrall society by her life choices, train derby winning racehorses, and work as a pilot. When she was much older, Beryl wrote her own biography, West with the Night to minimal success.

In her eighties, having outlived a majority of her friends and lovers, Beryl was still residing  in Africa. Thankfully to Hemingway, in an indirect manner, she as able to live her final days in some sort of comfort, saving her from the poverty her existence had become. Her memoir was re-released, this time becoming a bestseller.

1438970925-west-with-the-nightIf you’re still as interested in Beryl Markham as I am after this novel, I would seek out her memoir.

This memoir may have seemed more informative than most and to be a large spoiler, but nothing compares to reading it from Paula McLain’s words. Beryl comes to life, and if you didn’t read the author’s note or quote dedication, you wouldn’t know the fact hidden in this fiction.

After reading this book, I’m thankful for two things. Firstly, for the reading experience. Secondly, for bringing this incredible figure to my attention. I highly recommend anyone to read this novel, even if you’re not a historical fiction buff as I am.

Circling the Sun by Paula McLain receives ♥♥♥♥♥

Other works by Paula McLain:

  • The Paris Wife
  • A Ticket to Ride
  • Like Family: Growing Up in Other Peoples Houses: A Memoir

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