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'Circling the Sun': Paula McLain reimagines the remarkable life of Beryl Markham

Aviator Beryl Markham arriving in New York, on

Aviator Beryl Markham arriving in New York, on Sept. 6, 1936, after a solo flight across the Atlantic. Markham is the subject of a new novel. Credit: AP

CIRCLING THE SUN, by Paula McLain. Ballantine Books, 366 pp., $28.

If Beryl Markham hadn't existed, a novelist would have had to invent her.

Born in England in 1902, she moved to British East Africa (now Kenya) when she was 4, roaming free on her family farm near the Great Rift Valley, playing and hunting with the Kipsigis natives. From her father, she learned to ride and train horses; later, she became a bush pilot and in 1936 made a solo east-to-west flight across the Atlantic, the first woman to do so. She had numerous love affairs (writer-aviator Antoine de Saint Exupéry and a son of King George V reputedly among them) and wrote a memoir, "West With the Night," that was praised by Ernest Hemingway.

In "Circling the Sun," novelist Paula McLain recasts Markham's epic story as fiction, sticking close to the truth but filling in the gaps believably. McLain's bestselling previous novel, "The Paris Wife," told the story of Hemingway's first marriage to Hadley Richardson, during the "Moveable Feast" years in the City of Light. Where Hadley was insecure and retiring, Beryl is free-spirited and headstrong; in McLain's hands she is a prototypical independent woman, forging her own way in a man's world.

The novel opens as Markham takes off in her single-engine Vega Gull, "The Messenger," on her famous flight, but "Circling the Sun" is only glancingly concerned with Markham's aviation career. As she flies through the darkness, her mind wanders back to Africa and the events of her youth. Two years after arriving in Kenya, her mother returned to England with Beryl's brother, Dickie, leaving Beryl with her father. "This is our home now," he tells her. "And I'm not ready to give up on it just yet. Are youu" "What he wanted to know," Beryl reflects, "was if I could love this life as he did. If I could give my heart to this place, even if she never returned and I had no mother going forward, perhaps not ever."

The answer, of course, is yes -- although this abandonment will reverberate throughout the book and help us to understand her character. Left largely to her own devices, Beryl befriends a young Kip boy, Kibii, and alongside him she learns to "fashion a bow and take down wood pigeons and waxwings and vivid blue starlings, and to snap a rhino-hide whip and wield a knotted throwing club with deadly accuracy." Visiting some English friends, she is attacked by their pet lion -- a "kind of initiation" that she survives, miraculously.

A love of horses and a gift for handling them will carry Beryl into adulthood. She becomes a successful racehorse trainer -- the only woman in the field, raising eyebrows. She marries badly twice, and flees into a friendship with the beguiling Danish coffee planter Karen Blixen, who penned "Out of Africa" under the nom de plume Isak Dinesen. But it is Blixen's lover, big-game hunter Denys Finch Hatton -- Robert Redford in the 1985 film adaptation of "Out of Africa" -- who will upend Beryl's world and become the great romance of her life, straining but never ending her connection with Blixen. "That's how things were in the colony," Beryl observes. "You needed friends, no matter how complicated those ties were, or what they cost you."

McLain gallops through Markham's life with the ease of a thoroughbred, sidestepping some of the more vexed racial aspects of African colonialism. Occasionally the narrative veers into sudsiness, but Markham's voice, expertly channeled, and McLain's fluent prose keep the novel on course. At its best, "Circling the Sun" soars.


On safari with the Hemingways

It isn't hard to imagine Ernest Hemingway, a central character in Paula McLain's "The Paris Wife," showing up in the pages of her new novel, "Circling the Sun," ready to hunt for big game in Africa. In fact, Hemingway did go on safari in Kenya and Tanganyika (Tanzania) in 1933 and '34 with his second wife, Pauline Pfeiffer, and wrote about the experience. "Green Hills of Africa: The Hemingway Library Edition" (Scribner, $30) is a new edition of his classic account, supplemented with photos, deleted passages, early drafts and Pfeiffer's own safari diary. It may not be among Hemingway's greatest works, but he vividly evokes the African landscape as well as the thrill -- and the tedium -- of the hunt. And the banter among Hemingway, his wife, their guide and their native trackers is brilliantly sharp and funny. They make good company.

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