Circling the Sun

Circling the Sun: A Novel

Paula McLain

Random House Publishing Group – Ballantine

July 28, 2015

384 pages


Paula McLain’s Circling the Sun: A Novel is the fictionalized memoir of Beryl Clutterbuck Purves Markham, a woman ahead of her time. This novel of Beryl Markham’s youth takes you deep into the soul of this unusual and unconventional woman.

Abandoned by her mother before the age of five, Beryl is a maverick from the get-go, spending most of her childhood in the bush with her toto friend, Kibii, learning the skills of a young Kipsigis boy. Alongside her father “Clutt”, she learns how to assess, raise and train thoroughbred racehorses.

Beryl could not be tamed by Emma, the housekeeper her father brought into the home, nor by a governess, nor by a boarding school in Nairobi that expelled her after two and a half years.

When Clutt’s farm fails in her mid-teens, Beryl marries neighboring farmer Jock Purves, but is quickly disillusioned. She leaves her husband, who won’t grant her a divorce, determined to make her way as a trainer of thoroughbreds. Guided by a family friend with a vast stable, she is allowed to prepare for a license as an English Trainer; the first woman in Africa to do so. At the age of nineteen Beryl becomes the first licensed female racehorse trainer on the continent.

But Beryl is not schooled in the unique and unwritten social standards of the 1920’s colonial ex-pat community of the British East Africa Protectorate (eventually, Kenya). Her affairs, including an on-going secret relationship with Denys Finch Hatton — the lover of the Baroness Karen Blixen, who would later pen Out of Africa as Isaak Dinesen — become scandalous even in this loose society. She flees to England to escape the disgraceful reputation she has created.

She returns to Kenya with a sponsor, and begins to repair her status as a young woman of society and as a trainer. Eventually, Jock divorces Beryl, and she later marries Mansfield Markham.

A trail blazer, Beryl breaks barriers for women in the world of horse training, and later as the first professional female pilot in Africa. She has a deep love of the lush country she lives in — its wilderness as well as the natives who live on the land and who remain her lifelong friends.

Paula McLain shows us the beauty of the wild country as Beryl experienced it, and we feel Beryl’s passion for all things wild and untamed, much like Beryl herself. Beryl channels her energy into her love for the land and into challenging boundaries. The author’s storytelling in Circling the Sun: A Novel is as remarkable as the woman she writes about. Deeply visual, visceral, entrancing and exciting, Circling the Sun: A Novel is one of the best novels I’ve read in quite some time. As an author, McLain is a true thoroughbred.

Thank you to NetGalley and the publisher Random House Group – Ballantine for a preview copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own. 

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