After I read Circling the Sun by Paula McLain, a historical novel based on the life of aviator Beryl Markham, I was curious about how it compared with Markham’s memoir, West with the Night, which Ernest Hemingway called “a bloody wonderful book.”
West with the Night was first published in 1942, six years after Markham made her historic solo flight from east to west across the Atlantic. It is told in 24 essays which are not always in chronological order, but are instead grouped by subject. The first group of four essays covers just a few days of air flights to rescue dying people in the African hinterland. Next is a group of six essays about growing up on a farm in the shadow of Mount Kenya, befriending the local tribespeople and learning about horse care from her father. The third set of four essays covers her adult life as a horse trainer, and the fourth set of eight essays details her work scouting for elephants from the air, and the challenge of flying across the Atlantic.
Oddly, the memoir is less personal than the novel. Markham makes no mention of her husbands or lovers, nor does she deal with her mother, who went back to England when Markham was a small child.
The novel Circling the Sun, published in 2015, begins with a prologue about Beryl’s flight across the Atlantic, and then goes back in time to her mother’s decision to leave Africa. The 62 short chapters proceed chronologically through Beryl’s childhood and adulthood. While the novel delves into the personal aspects of her life, I sometimes had a hard time understanding Beryl’s motivations and decisions. Why does she agree, as a teenager, to marry a man she barely knows? She seems so strong-willed in other aspects of her life, but ends up allowing her father to influence her into this ill-fated marriage without a lot of thought. Is she unconsciously seeking to replace the love she lost when her mother left? Is she searching for a family? Her motivation was unclear to me. Another difficulty with the novel is that Beryl sometimes fades into the background in the chapters featuring conversations within the European community in Africa, some of whose members, like Karen Blixen (AKA the author Isak Dinesen), are famous in their own right.
For me, the strongest chapters in the novel were about Beryl’s work as a horse trainer. She clearly loves her job and is motivated to succeed despite numerous setbacks. Strangely, the novel does not go into much detail about her flight training or her work as a pilot in Africa. The memoir includes much more about this aspect of her life.
Both the memoir and the novel are beautifully written. Paula McLain, the author of Circling the Sun, is a poet and this is apparent. She has managed to capture the beauty and cadence of Markham’s voice. Here is a paragraph from Markham’s West with the Night about her flight across the Atlantic:
It is dark already and I am over the south of Ireland. There are the lights of Cork and the lights are wet; they are drenched in Irish rain, and I am above them and dry. I am above them and the plane roars in a sobbing world, but it imparts no sadness to me. I feel the security of solitude, the exhilaration of escape. So long as I can see the lights and imagine the people walking under them, I feel selfishly triumphant, as if I have eluded care and left even the small sorrow of rain in other hands. (p. 284)
And here are some sentences from the novel Circling the Sun, about the same event:
A bolt of lightning crackles near my left wing, bright as Christmas trimmings, electrifying the air—and suddenly I have the feeling that all of this has happened before, perhaps many times over. Perhaps I’ve always been here, driving headlong towards myself. Below me, heartless water lashes, ready for me, but it’s Kenya I’m thinking of. (p. 6)
Both of these books are well worth reading, and together they give a more complete portrait of this remarkable, barrier-breaking woman.