I read Circling the Sun with my book group. I was initially intrigued by the fact that it is set in Kenya, as that is one of only five countries in Africa to which I’ve traveled. I knew little else when I started reading, but found that I relished every single page. It became the anthem to my summer—my reason to anticipate bedtime with excitement and curiosity, when I could have my nightly check-in with this fascinating protagonist who alternately frustrated and inspired me. This is the amazing story of real woman’s life. (Please don’t look her up online—it might spoil the story of her wonderfully unpredictable journey!)
In 1904, a three-year-old named Beryl moves from England to Kenya (before it was “Kenya”) with her mother, father and brother. Two years later, her mother and older brother return to England (for reasons I am reluctant to reveal—no spoilers!), leaving Beryl in Kenya to be raised by her father, who trains horses and runs a farm. Growing up adjacent to and immersed in several families from the Kipsigis tribe, Beryl becomes an aspiring young warrior (having never absorbed Western expectations of girlhood), passionate racehorse trainer, and adventurer. We first meet her, in a flash-forward prologue, while she’s performing her ultimate occupation: pilot.
Beryl’s aviation prowess—she makes history by becoming the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic from east to west—seems nearly impossible to imagine as the story of her early life begins. By giving us a glimpse into her future, the author sets us up for an amazing journey as I found myself asking: How on Earth is this where Beryl ends up? McLain challenges us with the ending that we know is coming, and she thwarts every effort to make sense of it all before it’s time.
It helps that this book is beautifully written. As an English major, I am a stickler for grammar, syntax, structure, and language. I found myself highlighting many of her stunning phrases. An example:
“While a leopard moth that had got caught in the curtains stopped struggling for a moment, and realized it was free.”
Grammatically, this sentence is… problematic. However, I was repeatedly struck by the beauty and profundity of McLain’s imagery. It is likely that the language is deliberately rough, for the “world” of the novel is a rough one with moments of sheer beauty. This description also applies to the protagonist.
Beryl is, after all, wonderfully unpolished and irreverent. She is brave and naïve—a combination that proves both disastrous and fortuitous as she moves through her life. My favorite moments are those in which McLain draws comparisons between Beryl and both wild animals and Africa itself:
“[a lion] can only be exactly what he is, what his nature dictates, and nothing else.”
“…that was something I loved about Africa. The way it got at you from outside in and never let up, and never let you go.”
Beryl is torn between two worlds—an English girl born at the turn of the twentieth century, she is also naturally and thoroughly wild. It is unknown to us or others whether her wildness is nature or nurture, but I’m inclined to say that it is both. The inevitability of her (and everyone else’s) path is the central drive of the novel.
“It was possible everyone ended up in the same place no matter which path we took or how often we fell to our knees, undoubtedly wiser for all of it.”
Read this book for an emotional vacation to a fascinating moment in world history. Read it to be astounded by the human spirit’s ability to conquer so much. Read it to be inspired by bravery in the face of true mortal danger. Read it for the romance! Read it because it happened. Enjoy it because it’s excellent.