By Paula McLain

Ballantine Books (July 28, 2015)

Reviewed by Billie Hinton

“I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills. The Equator runs across these highlands, a hundred miles to the North, and the farm lay at an altitude of over six thousand feet. In the day-time you felt that you had got high up, near to the sun, but the early mornings and evenings  were limpid and restful, and the nights were cold.”

~Isak Dinesen, Out Of Africa

“How is it possible to bring order out of memory? I should like to begin at the beginning, patiently, like a weaver at his loom. I should like to say, ‘This is the place to start; there can be no other.'”

~Beryl Markham, West With The Night

Circling the SunThese are the openings to two of my favorite books in the world, so Paula McLain’s Circling The Sun was on my list to read the moment I learned it existed. I was not disappointed.

McLain deftly captures the ambiance of colonial Kenya and meticulously crafts Beryl Markham’s own voice. I was immediately drawn into this familiar world, a landscape and a story that has been previously painted so perfectly by Isak Dinesen and by Beryl Markham herself.

Years back I worked in an indie bookstore (before bookstores were even known as indies) when North Point Press republished West With The Night.  We couldn’t keep the book in stock. While it had been largely ignored upon its first publication in 1942 it was a runaway bestseller when it came out the second time. I think we were all taken with that dark journey in a small plane over the ocean. We wanted Beryl Markham to make it because it meant we might make it ourselves.

In Circling The Sun McLain takes us to Beryl’s childhood, where she is essentially abandoned by her mother and brother and adored by her father. who teaches her to raise and train race horses. We learn that Beryl on the earth’s surface is as brave as she is in the sky. She grows up wild, learning to hunt with a Murani boy until they reach the age when he is no longer allowed to be close to her. We see Beryl marry for convenience and struggle with a convention that constrains her. It is when she meets Karen Blixen and Denys Finch Hatton that the novel becomes the third panel of a triptych.

When I was in undergraduate school studying literature there was a brief period when I was encouraged by professors to aim for graduate school and a PhD. I fancied teaching classes where I alone created the syllabi and reading lists, all of which would be what I think of now as literary pairings. There are books that enhance one another by being read in close proximity.

Circling The Sun is a lovely novel all on its own, but read it with Out Of Africa and West With The Night for a full-blown literary experience. I think you’ll find the three together as pleasing as a sliver of bleu cheese on a home-grown radish sliced very thin. Followed by a sip of a crisp white wine.

And the triptych is complete. The first line of Paula McLain’s Circling The Sun:

“The Vega Gull is peacock blue with silver wings, more splendid than any bird I’ve known, and somehow mine to fly.”

~Paula McLain, Circling The Sun


BILLIE HINTON is an author and contributing editor to LitChat. Read her complete bio here.