I listened to this book, which was my first exposure to Beryl Markham. As a child, I read a lot of historical fiction–the Landmark books of American history, Mary Renault, Jean Auel–and I still read my share of future history (okay, sci-fi). These genres share a lot of characteristics, particularly a tendency for their protagonists to end up more heroic than they may have been. The thing about historical fiction is that you never know what true and what’s only imagined; so while Circling the Sun rings with authenticity, I can’t say to what level the details have been burnished. Nonetheless, the book is a fascinating portrait of a time and a character communicated to us through the language of emotion, of experience, of moments that McLain found as defining in Beryl’s life. The evocation of Africa, the white’s belief in their manifest destiny, the common and accepted nature of racisim and sexism provide a dynamic backdrop to Beryl’s life. We root for her glorious search for self-identity in a world barely beginning to accept the agency in women that many take for granted today. McLain had done an admirable job in portraying that, and Beryl, while not a crusader, is as driven by ambition and the lust for self-determination as any man of any era. This, of course, was seen as a character flaw in a woman then, which I imagine is at the root of her ‘difficult’ reputation. That there are times in her life that she has to accept the help of male benefactors (including a selfish first husband and a later ‘sugar daddy’) only reinforces this narrative. Ultimately, however close to the truth the details are, or the representation of the times and characters, Beryl is a woman who charts her own course, and McLain succeeds in telling this story. The book is not history or sociology or economics; it is fiction, and reading it as such was both fun and edifying.
Circling the Sun Paula McClain