Paula McLain‘s Circling the Sun has been on my radar for a couple of years now. I finally bought it recently, and was eager to dive in. While I’ve read a lot of historical fiction in the last few years, this is one of only a few that has taken me to Africa. Here, we are transported to Kenya in the early 1900s, following a young woman brought there from England by her pioneering parents.
Beryl Markham was a real figure in history. In 1936, she became the first person to fly solo and nonstop across the Atlantic Ocean – from England to Canada. In Circling the Sun, Paula McLain breathes life into her story, starting when she was just a child living on a farm in Kenya. We follow her as she grows up, focusing especially on her life in the 1920s.
Early on, it’s clear that Circling the Sun stays mainly in colonial Kenya. Most of the characters are white and British, occupying Kenyan land. They’re aristocratic and perceive a very different reality from what native-born Kenyans would have experienced. This is a book about the white settlers, and this perspective comes out in Beryl’s words and actions. She is, in many ways, a troubled and imperfect character. But at the same time, she is also progressive for her time and social standing. It makes for an interesting dichotomy and a realistic character.
Even from a young age, Beryl was ahead of her time. Tomboyish and fearless, Beryl took part in activities that wouldn’t have been considered right for a proper young lady. Her best friend was a Kenyan boy – part of the Kipsigis tribe – who was around her age. She ran wild and free, but also faced struggles in her family life. Her mother left her and her father, and this early abandonment left a lasting impact.
As Beryl grows up, we watch as she makes mistakes in love. While marriages and pregnancies are both part of her story, so are toxic relationships, affairs, and scandals. It’s a messy path for her, and continues to be throughout the novel.
At the same time, though, we also get to see Beryl assert her independence and forge a career for herself. Not one to play the idle role of a housewife, Beryl needs to always be active, doing, achieving. Despite being a woman in the 1920s, she makes a name for herself. Beryl rises up in horse training before eventually trying her hand at flying. Aviation ultimately becomes the career that leaves her mark in history.
Circling the Sun is a beautifully written and illuminating book about a historical figure I hadn’t known about. It brings a certain side of Kenya to life, and it gives readers a portrait of a fascinating woman: at once a pioneer as an independent and hard-working woman, but also someone who was troubled and complicated in her personal life. Beryl wasn’t always the most likable character, but even with her flaws, she was still remarkable for her time.
Paula McLain did a wonderful job in depicting Beryl’s story and the time and place she grew up in. Circling the Sun is a great novel, and I’ll definitely seek out more books set in Kenya and Africa overall.