Our story begins on a farm in Njoro in the British East African protectorate “before Kenya was Kenya, when it was millions of years old at yet still somehow new.” In 1904 Charles Clutterbuck, a horse trainer from England, moves his wife and two small children to Africa—a wild, untamed continent that might as well be an alien planet. Beryl’s society-minded mother and frail brother return to England soon after, leaving Beryl’s upbringing to her father and the wilderness. When Beryl looks back on her African childhood, before the lion and the housekeeper-turned-common-law-stepmother, before the governesses and schools, she remembers the place of her second birth:
“This was my home, and though one day it would all trickle through my fingers like so much red dust, for as long as childhood lasted it was a heaven fitted exactly to me. A place I knew by heart. The only place in the world I’d been made for.”
“Circling the Sun” is an entertaining piece of popular fiction. McLain establishes and maintains a fast-paced plot, and scatters some truly beautiful lines throughout the novel. However, much of the dialogue falls flat, and she fails to render Africa and Beryl Markham in a way that feels complete.
This may be due in part to the pace of the novel. McLain doesn’t explain the political and social mechanism operating in British East Africa that shaped Markham’s life, the tribal wars, uprisings against colonization, and the ever-changing lines of ownership drawn on maps and enforced by soldiers. She glosses over details to maintain tension in the line of Markham’s narrative. Perhaps teaching history is not the novelist’s job; perhaps McLain encourages readers to research the tangled history of the world’s most disputed continent. A novelist’s job is rendering a place, the physical and political geography of specific space in specific time, in a way that feels three-dimensional, that demands all of our senses and challenges our wits. McLain’s Africa is much like the old British African protectorate—a wan facsimile of a wild place watered down by too much champagne, too many wealthy white people, and too much society.
McLain reduces Markham to a woman tortured by love, not so say that love reduces humanity or legitimacy of a story, but romance alone does not Markham’s story make. There is the wild and motherless childhood, the first disastrous and abusive marriage, a sponsorship that ends in a drug-fueled sex party, a second failed marriage, and under everything runs the only current besides horses that apparently stirs her—Denis Finch Hatton, the pilot-paramour of Karen Blixen.
The relationships between Blitzen and her husband, Bror, Bror’s lover Cockie, Blitzen and Hatton, and Markham’s own entanglement creates a complex geometric equation—one that makes for easy reading. After a promising prologue, a tense and beautifully rendered snippet of Markham’s infamous journey across the Atlantic, McLain chooses Hatton as her catch, as the snag that builds and holds tension through the narrative. Airplanes, Africa, even the horses, are all simply punctuation for this grand, doomed love affair.
In Markham’s memoir, “West With the Night,” she writes that there are “so many Africas,” and as many books about the place. Each is a unique portrayal, no less true than any others, but perhaps only true to the author. “Circling the Sun” does not feel true, not the way my favorite literature feels true. However, the novel is certainly a fun read which has no less a legitimate a place in the canon of modern fiction.