Richard and Judy Review: Circling the Sun by Paula McLain

Richard and Judy Review: Circling the Sun by Paula McLain

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"Everything that follows, described in glorious, sun-drenched flashback, is the story of Beryl Markham’s extraordinary journey to her life-or-death appointment with fate."

Richard’s review

It would be hard for any writer as accomplished as Paula McLain to miss the target with such an incredible true-life story. And of course McLain has form for this kind of fictionalised account of a life well-lived. She had a huge hit with The Paris Wife, the story of Hadley, Ernest Hemingway’s second wife.

Once again McLain takes us back in time to a specific, glamorous location. Pre-war Paris is swapped for early 20th century Kenya, and this time the woman at the centre of the narrative is Beryl Markham – although she starts out as Beryl Clutterbuck, an unlikely name for someone who would grow up to be a true heroine of the age.

Markham was the first woman to fly the Atlantic solo from east to west, in 1936. It was a stunning achievement in its day, but is not the focus of this novel – rather, Markham’s feat bookends it in the opening and closing chapters. It makes for a hair-raising introduction and finale: the young woman was in a small, single-engined wood-and-fabric monoplane more suitable for domestic flights than thousands of miles of freezing, empty ocean. The aircraft was virtually a flying bomb because of all the extra fuel it had to carry and there was real concern it would be too heavy to get into the air and crash on take-off.

So we know from the very start that we are dealing with a remarkable person – a woman of courage, confidence and daring. The scene is set. Everything that follows, described in glorious, sun-drenched flashback, is the story of Beryl Markham’s extraordinary journey to her life-or-death appointment with fate.

"It’s a wonderful story and McLain tells it with relish. We think you’ll love it."

Judy’s review

Circling the Sun is real Out of Africa stuff, and features many of the glamorous, colourful real-life characters in the book and film of the same name. The beauty of Kenya’s Rift Valley and the sun-drenched, gin-soaked lives of the wealthy colonials in Nairobi – the epicentre of the so-called ‘Happy Valley’ set – is vividly depicted.

Beryl Markham arrived in Kenya with her parents and her brother, Dickie. The family were looking to make a fresh start by starting up a farm, but things went wrong almost from the beginning. Beryl’s mother hated the place. She simply couldn’t adjust to the heat, the dust, the flies, or the grinding hard work involved in getting a new enterprise up and running from a standing start. After just two years she abandoned her husband and daughter and took Dickie with her back to England.

So Beryl grew up with only her father for company. The girl was pretty much allowed to run wild for the first few years; a classic tomboy.

But in time Beryl was corralled in a private school and at 16 she was married off to a much older man. It was a disaster. Beryl rallied and followed in her father’s footsteps as a racehorse trainer (she was the first woman ever to hold a professional racehorse trainer’s licence). And then came the Happy Valley years, mingling with the hard-drinking, drug-taking promiscuous ‘cream’ of colonial society; Karen Blixen, Denys Finch Hatton (like Hemingway, a big-game hunter) and Lord Delamere, who introduced Beryl to flying.

It’s a wonderful story and McLain tells it with relish. We think you’ll love it.

Press reviews

Here are a selection of the reviews for Circling The Sun

"Paula McLain is considered the new star of historical fiction, and for good reason. Fans of The Paris Wife will be captivated by Circling the Sun…[the] book is both beautifully written and utterly engrossing."

Country Living

"Amelia Earhart gets all the airtime, but this pilot had the juicier past. Beryl Markham was a pioneering aviator—the first woman to journey from Europe to America solo—yet few young girls know her name. With her latest novel, based on true events, McLain author of the best-selling The Paris Wife, aims to change that. Beryl is one badass heroine. McLain crafts a story readers won’t soon forget.Superb"

Good Housekeeping

"Paula McLain has such a gift for bringing characters to life. I loved discovering the singular Beryl Markham, with all her strengths and passions and complexities, a woman who persistently broke the rules, despite the personal cost. She’s a rebel in her own time, and a heroine for ours."

Jojo Moyes, Author of Me Before You