Circling The Sun is Paula McLain’s second novel. Her first, The Paris Wife, a fictional account of Ernest Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley Richardson, was a runaway success when it came out in 2011.
This time McLain takes on a remarkable woman as her heroine, Beryl Markham, the first woman to ever fly solo over the Atlantic in an aeroplane.
McLain’s account is less interested in Beryl’s already documented time as a bush pilot and dauntless aviator; rather it re-imagines her childhood in Africa. We begin in 1904, and the Clutterbuck family has arrived in Africa from England to farm. Two years later deserted by her mother Beryl grows up wild with her father and the local people. The book moves through her adulthood in Kenya, her three marriages, and her love affair with Denys Finch Hatton (yes, that Hatton who is famous for wooing Karin Blixen in “Out of Africa”. Blixen wrote Beryl out when she wrote her love story).
Circling The Sun is in the same vein as The Paris Wife: a lush backdrop (Paris/Africa) a doomed love story (Hemmingway/Denys Finch Hatton), and a woman who picks herself up and goes on despite it all (Hadley remarries after Hemmingway for life/Beryl throws herself into flying). But here’s where my issue with the book lies, Beryl Markham is a remarkable woman, she survived a lion attack as a child, is one of the first women to get a horse trainers licence and goes on to cross the Atlantic solo in an aeroplane. This takes some guts. So it grates when the fictional Beryl descends into a simpering mess every time the roguish big-game hunter Finch Hatton appears. The whole thing is suspiciously reminiscent of Mills and Boon novels.
Yes, McLain paints Beryl as spirited, for sure, but the love affair with Finch Hatton looming large in the centre of the novel is a disservice to the real Beryl. I don’t doubt Beryl loved him, but I do doubt he was the centre of her life. The real Beryl Markham wrote her own memoir, West With the Night, about her solo flight across the Atlantic. Hemmingway was in awe of the book dubbing it “bloody wonderful.” He wrote to his publisher, “But this girl, who is to my knowledge very unpleasant and we might even say a high-grade bitch, can write rings around all of us who consider ourselves as writers.”
Where is that Beryl in McLain’s account? That mould breaking, fiery, bitchy lady?
I searched for her in these pages, and found her absent.
This is, paradoxically, not to say this Circling The Sun isn’t an enjoyable enough read, I can see this being good frothy summer fodder and will be popular among book-groups. But the disservice to Beryl Markham irks.