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Coming from conservative England to colonial Kenya, Beryl Markham is thrilled by the endless opportunities to help her break out of a conventional 20th century woman’s lifestyle. She rides wild horses, explores safaris with native boys, and takes an interest in aviation. However, her desire for adventure leads her to a life of scandal and danger.

In her newest book, author Paula McLain transports readers to the British East African Protectorate to follow Markham, a real-life figure, as she leaves a privileged and comfortable life in England to begin a new one with her father on a farm in the golden plains of Njoro, Kenya. She becomes known as the first female horse trainer in South Africa and also the first woman to fly solo from east to west across the Atlantic Ocean.

McLain beautifully fictionalizes details about real events that happened in Markham’s life. The storytelling flows smoothly and the descriptions are vivid and easy to imagine, making even the simplest parts of the story worth reading.

Abandoned by her mother at four years old, Beryl is an unorthodox young woman raised by her father after he moves to Kenya. She plays with the boys from the Kipsigis tribe, and her wild behavior drives away the governesses her father hires for her.

Beryl later joins an eccentric European community called the Happy Valley set, where she befriends Karen Blixen and Denys Finch Hatton. A turbulent love triangle forms between them, testing their loyalty to one another.

McLain coerces the reader into an emotional relationship with individual characters. The complication of the love triangle between Beryl, Denys, and Karen makes up the backbone of the story and is written so dramatically that it is difficult not to sympathize with each of the characters involved. Beryl carries the memories she made with them in her heart as she moves forward on her own journey.

Through her magnificent prose, McLain breathes a sense of realism into each of her characters and paints a beautiful landscape in each scene. Even the most barren and danger-infested areas of Africa sound like paradise, and the imaginative transportation to Kenya’s hot grasslands makes “Circling the Sun” a great book to read when the summer heat adds realism to the reader’s imaginative trip to Africa. The plotline doesn’t start quickening until a few more chapters into the book, but when it picks up the pace, McLain’s decorative storytelling makes it a fun read.

McLain also does a great job portraying Beryl’s strength as an independent female figure in the 1920s, a time when women were expected to conform strictly to gender roles. Beryl serves as a powerful role model for anyone who wants to venture into the unknown, particularly young women.

This book is a great choice for anyone interested in history and strong female characters. Although some parts are works of fiction, McLain’s fluid and poetic writing brings Beryl’s story and Kenyan colonial history to life.

The verdict: “Circling the Sun” is not for romance seekers, but the characters may capture your heart.


Reach writer Rhea Panela at arts@dailyuw.comTwitter: @rheapanela_



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