Friday, July 22, 2016

Book Review - Paula McLain's Circling the Sun

Circling the Sun by Paula McLain
ARC Provided by the Publisher
Published by: Ballantine Books
Publication Date: July 28th, 2015
Format: Hardcover, 384 Pages
Rating: ★★
To Buy

Beryl Markham would go down in history as the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic from east to west, but her story began when she was just four-year-old Beryl Clutterbuck and her family came to British East Africa so that her father could train horses. Within a year her mother and older brother returned to England but Beryl stayed with her father in Africa. She grew up wild and free, in love with the horses, the land, and the natives. Over the years her father attempted to tame her with governesses and schooling, but Beryl was too willful and wild. That would change when her father announced that he was being forced to sell their farm. He couldn't afford to keep it and had agreed to take a job in South Africa. At sixteen Beryl had a hard choice to make. She could either go with her father or she could accept the proposal of marriage that their neighbor, Jock Purves, had put on the table. Beryl reluctantly agreed to marry Jock, hoping that her life would continue on in much the same why it had. She was wrong. Beryl bucked at the constraints of marriage and soon took off. She left her husband behind and took to training horses, eventually becoming the first licensed female racehorse trainer. She had many ups and downs in her career training horses and in her love life. But it was the love triangle between her, Karen Blixen, and Denys Finch Hatton that shaped her most. Denys was the love of her life and he was the one who first showed her how to fly. And oh, how she soared.

Beryl Markham is an interesting character to read about for those intrigued by Kenya during it's heyday. Because she arrived in the colony at such a young age with her family and stayed there for much of her life her story is like getting the best of Elspeth Huxley and Isak Dinesen. You get the pioneering beginning and the decadent lifestyle Kenya became notorious for all with one person. Add to this that it is written by a modern writer, Circling the Sun has more approachable prose than the dense morass of pretension that tended to flow out of Isak Dinesen. This book is a good starting off point for those wanting to know more about this fascinating time period, but I can only hope that after dipping in they'll dig deeper. Because for everything this book gets right it gets ten things wrong. It presents an easily digestible and palatable version of events that doesn't uncover the whole truth. Circling the Sun is like the Lifetime Movie version of what really happened in Kenya, stupid framing device and all. Yes, it is hard to get at the truth of what really happened during this time period seeing as the Happy Valley Set were all highly literate and writing their own skewed version of events, but there's just something so flat about this book in the end that you can't help wanting there to have been something more, some insight.

For someone who broke all the rules and was a woman ahead of her time McLain's depiction of Beryl is just flat. There is no passion, no life breathed into her. You forge no connection to McLain's subject. She never becomes alive, forever staying as ink on a page, a dry dusty woman who would have been forgotten by history if not for Ernest Hemingway's interest in West with the Night. At the beginning of the book with Beryl's childhood you feel an inkling that this will be an epic story full of insight, up there with Huxley's The Flame Trees of Thika. But as the book progresses it starts to rely heavily on telling us not showing us, the death knell of any story. As Beryl is trying to regain control of her life it almost feels as if McLain is channeling this desire for control to the point where the construct of Beryl is not even letting the reader in. This makes the book become flatter and flatter and more atonal as you progress. What little interest you had in Beryl is completely gone as she is written out of significance by McLain's bland storytelling. At the very end of the book there's a last ditch effort by McLain, perhaps realizing that she had failed to do Beryl justice, where she speechifies about freedom, but it's too late. It comes across as preachy and fails entirely to get the point across she was attempting to make.

Yet what I did find interesting is that McLain was actually, for a time, able to make topics that I would normally hate interesting, IE horses and flying. McLain might not have captured Beryl, but she did capture the spirit of horses and racing that predominated Kenyan society. I have never been a horse person, and never will be, though I will admit to liking the spirit of the races that grip the country every May with the Kentucky Derby. The horses and how Beryl rehabilitated several and got her license, that was all oddly fascinating. What I found bizarre though was that for a woman known for flying there was a disproportion in the book. McLain lavishes so much on the training of the horses by the time she gets to Beryl and her flying it's kind of like, there's no time left, I'm wrapping it up, story's over. Say what? I just read hundreds of pages about mud near a certain lake and how it could help a horse with injured limbs yet Beryl gets up in a plane and it's all, whatever, you don't need to know about this. Seeing as Beryl was forever seeking freedom, wouldn't that translate well into writing about flying? Not to mention her freakin' book she wrote on it!?! But as I said before, for every one thing that was right another ten things were wrong.

What I found most wrong and strongly objectionable was the depiction of Karen Blixen, who most people will know by her pen name, Isak Dinesen. Because of her book Out of Africa people have this very romanticized version of Karen Blixen that lives in their head. This wasn't helped by the movie. Personally, I don't get it. The book isn't well written. Period. This isn't a point I'm ever going to argue with people because in my mind just pick up the book and read it and if you can actually finish it, I'm sure you'll come around to my POV. Sure, the movie might be pretty, but Redford? Really? The reason I mention the reverence for the book and it's author is that it felt like McLain had a need to preserve the integrity of Blixen instead of telling the truth. She handles Blixen with kid gloves, Beryl is always talking about how wonderful she is and how guilty she felt for being trapped in a love triangle with her. Here's the truth. Everyone in Kenya couldn't stand Blixen. They viewed her as a pretentious pill who always thought she knew better than everyone else. This isn't just from all the history books I've read, a family friend knew her. So I would have far more preferred a bit of truth-telling than coddling the image of an author that in my mind doesn't really even warrant that title.

But there's a lot of truth omitted in this book... This is in fact where I finally lost patience with Circling the Sun. I felt like McLain was forever circling the truth but was never brave enough to come out and say it. She kept Blixen the paragon her readers believed her to be and made Beryl a little more... I don't know how to say this, relatable by bending the truth? Palatable? Because McLain makes Beryl a hard working woman who occasionally falls prey to her desires, and that's not true. The scene that really got me was Beryl's disgust at Idina Sackville's sex party. Beryl was actually a very promiscuous woman. Now I'm not saying there's anything wrong with that, especially given the time and the climate of Kenya, it was basically expected, and she might indeed have had issues with Idina's party. Yet McLain makes it seem that Beryl is a bit of a prude. Which is anything but the truth. The truth is she had sexual relations with many of the men in her life, yet here the truth is bent to make her relationships with these men seem just friendships. Oh, and the straw that broke the camel's back? Yes, McLain discusses in detail the abortion of Denys's baby after their first sexual encounter. But does she talk about the later abortion? The fact that when Denys died she was pregnant again? Nope. McLain doesn't. And in the end that one final omission made me throw up my hands and view this book NOT as historical fiction of a real person but pure fantasy. That isn't what I read this book for. I wanted insight, truths, to get under the skin of Beryl. If that's what you want as well, look elsewhere.


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