Book Review: Circling the Sun


Circling the Sun, by Paula McLain

Beryl Markham may be the most incredible woman you have never heard of.  Of, if you have read this blog for a while, you may remember that I blogged about her memoir a couple of years ago.

Markham lived an incredible life, as the first woman licensed race horse trainer.  She was also the first woman bush pilot in Africa.  And the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean from East to West.

Circling the Sun

This historical novel details Markham’s life from childhood to the time of her momentous flight.  Paula McLain researched her life and told the story that many have probably never heard of.

Markham had a significant amount of tragedy in her personal life.  She was born in England but her parents moved to Africa to find their fortune when she was a young child.  Her mother wasn’t happy there, and abandoned her at the age of 5, leaving Africa to return to England with her brother; Beryl and her father remained there on the ranch he had founded.

Her father’s bankruptcy in her teens was the end of her sheltered upbringing; she chose to get married in order to be able to remain near her childhood home, but her husband was a drunk, and both physically and emotionally abusive.  He did not allow her a divorce for years, and when he finally granted it, she was financially ruined. Markham’s second marriage was a disaster too; her second husband essentially used his wealth and power to keep her son from her, while trying to smear her reputation in the process.  She had returned to England with him to have her son, but eventually went back to Africa when she divorced, seeing her son only sporadically.

She had a number of affairs which significantly damaged her reputation, both real and some potentially only errant rumors – either way they affected her standing in society.  According to the novel Beryl found true love in the arms of a man named Denys Finch Hatton, who had a long and committed relationship with a woman whom Beryl also had a lasting friendship with.  Complicated…

After her second divorce and return to Africa, she rebuilt her life training race horses and enjoyed a measure of success that was rare for a woman of the time.  She was introduced to people who were on the forefront of aviation and set her mind to learning to fly.  Sadly, she experienced the death of several close friends in air crashes, including her beloved long-term lover Denys.  She was supposed to go with him that day but stayed home after a close friend and fellow pilot allegedly had a premonition and urged her not to go.  The death impacted her deeply.

McLain tells the story fluidly, and her character development is superb.  Her descriptions of the African landscape show the reader what it would have been like to live in Africa in the nineteen teens, twenties and thirties.  Unlike Markham’s own memoir, West with the Night, which deals almost exclusively with Markham’s professional exploits, Circling the Sun tells the story of the Markham’s personal life in a way that is candid yet non-judgmental.

Markham lived on her own terms, but it was not without consequences.  It was a well written novel, which I thoroughly enjoyed.

4 stars.

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