Review: Circling the Sun

Circling the Sun, Paula McLain

Published July 28th 2015 by Ballantine Book

Hardcover, 384 pages

Source: e-ARC from NetGalley


From Goodreads

Circling the Sun brings to life a fearless and captivating woman—Beryl Markham, a record-setting aviator caught up in a passionate love triangle with safari hunter Denys Finch Hatton and Karen Blixen, who as Isak Dinesen wrote the classic memoir Out of Africa.

Brought to Kenya from England as a child and then abandoned by her mother, Beryl is raised by both her father and the native Kipsigis tribe who share his estate. Her unconventional upbringing transforms Beryl into a bold young woman with a fierce love of all things wild and an inherent understanding of nature’s delicate balance. But even the wild child must grow up, and when everything Beryl knows and trusts dissolves, she is catapulted into a string of disastrous relationships.

Beryl forges her own path as a horse trainer, and her uncommon style attracts the eye of the Happy Valley set, a decadent, bohemian community of European expats who also live and love by their own set of rules. But it’s the ruggedly charismatic Denys Finch Hatton who ultimately helps Beryl navigate the uncharted territory of her own heart. The intensity of their love reveals Beryl’s truest self and her fate: to fly.

Set against the majestic landscape of early-twentieth-century Africa, McLain’s powerful tale reveals the extraordinary adventures of a woman before her time, the exhilaration of freedom and its cost, and the tenacity of the human spirit.

After reading Megan Mayhew Bergman’s short stories in Almost Famous Women earlier this year I could not wait to start Paula McLain’s new book about Beryl Markham.  Circling the Sun begins with Markham flying from England across the Atlantic- the first woman to do so.  As she believes she might crash into the Atlantic she reflects back to her life in Kenya.  I deliberately had read nothing else about Markham so I really didn’t know if we were starting with her imagined final moments before her real death or what would happen in the end.  I am so glad I went in basically blind to what was to come.

Beryl’s memories take us to her childhood on her father’s farm in Kenya.  I really felt I was getting a view of British colonial Africa in the early 1900s.  I know that people really lived like this, but at times it felt like it had to be fiction!  I just cannot imagine trying to live with such excess next to the African savannah.  When Beryl was a child her mother took her younger brother and returned to England, sadly abandoning Beryl until she was an adult.  Beryl basically ran wild with the horses and with the local children – until she was about 16 and was pretty much left to fend for herself as an adult.  

While finding her way as a young wife and as the first woman to pursue her license to train horses Beryl fell in with the Happy Valley set and was exposed to yet another new world.  There was romance, big game hunting, lots of booze and lots of heartbreak.  The question asked was “Are you married or do you live in Kenya?”  The Happy Valley group are fascinating to read about but really unlikeable.  Its hard to believe that people really lived like that I suppose.  It was hard to keep track of who was having an affair with whom and even harder to determine who was actually in a faithful marriage!   

I wanted to both applaud Beryl and give her a hug as I was reading.  She was so brave and determined and at the same time came across as a sad figure who needed both a friend and a parent.  She was so young when she started breaking barriers!  McClain gives you Markham as a real person though, she’s flawed and she’s frightened at times, but she believes in herself and was an amazing woman.  I also was unfamiliar with the story of Denys Finch Hatton and Karen Blixen – so I definitely need to see Out of Africa (or read it) soon.  Beryl’s side of this love triangle was kind of maddening for me and also so very sad and I want to see the relationship from both women’s sides.  

I very much want to read Markham’s own book about her life now, West with the Night.  I would love to hear her own words of her adventures.  She certainly did nothing by half measures.  McClain completely brought Markham to life for me and hers is a story I need more of. 4 stars!

Thank you Ballantine Books and Edelweiss for this advance copy in exchange for an honest opinion.


  1. I’m glad you loved this book too! There’s something completely captivating about 1920s Kenya. And Beryl Markham was an incredible woman. I share your desire to read her story in her own words. I also think you nailed it that you wanted to applaud her and give her a hug – she was kind of flailing around and had she had more involved parents she might have been able to make other decisions.

  2. I really loved this one as well – and didn’t realize Beryl was included in Almost Famous Women! I’ve had my eye on that book! And – Circling the Sun did also make me want to read Beryl’s memoir. That Happy Valley set sure was dislikable – I started to get frustrated with it by the end.

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