Beautifully written, enthralling though at times slow tale of a woman before her time, a victim of her time, and both popular and easy to dislike. But don’t let the prologue fool you into thinking you’re embarking on an exciting story of her aviation career.
“Mwanzo is the word in Swahili for “beginnings”. But sometimes everything has to end first and the bottom drop out and every light fizzle and die before a poper beginning can come along” – Circling the Sun
Circling the Sun is a new take on the world of the well-known Out of Africa, from the point of view of aviator Beryl Clutterbuck Markham.
As Beryl Markham is best known for being the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic from East to West (considered much more difficult due to this direction fighting the prevailing winds), the story starts with a prologue of Beryl describing the time just before she departed for the historic flight. The weight of this accomplishment makes it logical to start here, but the story that follows is like a bait and switch because we don’t hear another peep about Beryl flying again until about 80% into the book, and nothing of substance really happens around it until the final pages. What starts as an enticing tale about a strong, progressive woman quickly turns into almost two novellas tied together – one about a passionate, strong minded child in a wild environment, and another about a selfish, inconsistent, and impetuous adult who in some times is beyond her years, and other times can’t get past thinking like a naïve, prudish child.
The first third of this book is beautiful, with vivid descriptions that draw you into early 20th century Africa. The style of writing lends itself perfectly to Katharine McEwan’s voice and narration style, making the story sound like a melody that draws you in like a flame. When the time comes for Beryl to embark on her first marriage though, the environmental details take a bit of a backseat to the soap opera that is Beryl’s adult life. Her free-range childhood makes it more natural for her to buck societies expectations of what she should, which has great promise for seeing the strong and progressive woman make waves. Instead though, as Beryl ages, she is more inconsistent, more selfish and, while accomplishing some truly great things, does so by stepping on others. Essentially, the Beryl of this story uses others, particularly women, as her stairsteps, rather than elevating women as a whole.
Please know – I am not trying to insert 21st century values on a story from 100 years ago. My focus here is on intent vs. actual. I believe the intent was to portray her as a woman who was both strong and flawed, progressive and still somewhat stalled, and ultimately a trailblazer for women. What actually came through though, is a tale of a selfish person who skated past many of her mistakes on a combination of luck, passion and usury, who also just happened to be a woman. I have (shame on me!) not read Out of Africa, West with the Night, or any other depictions of this story so cannot compare, but the Beryl of this story is part of a wonderfully written story, in a magically described setting – and was a first-class snot.
Ultimately, this is a good book, though does have some slow points where the information is rehashed multiple times with different words (particularly where Denys and Karen are concerned). Paula McClain knows how to weave a tale, and the choice of narrator is spot on. A worthy read for those who enjoy historical fiction, as long as you are ok with knowing it will add at least a few things to reading list from wanting to know the other sides of the story.
Circling the Sun
By Paula McClain
Read by Katharine McEwan
Random House Audio
Publication: July 27, 2015