‘I had a farm in Africa” is the memorable first line in “Out of Africa,” by Isak Dinesen ( aka Karen Blixen ). Paula McLain, no slouch in the capture-the-reader department either, begins her enchanting novel, “Circling the Sun,” with this: “Before Kenya was Kenya, when it was millions of years old and yet somehow new, the name belonged only to our most magnificent mountain. You could see it from our farm in Njoro.”
Seventy-odd years apart, both books spin magic. McLain, who had a great success with “The Paris Wife,” her novel about Ernest Hemingway’s marriage to Hadley Richardson, tops that achievement this time out. Here she tells the fictionalized story of Beryl Markham, whose own 1936 memoir, “West with the Night,” chronicled her solo flight across the Atlantic and continues to win devoted fans. A worthy heir to Dinesen, McLain will keep you from eating, sleeping, or checking your e-mail — though you might put these pages down just long enough to order airplane tickets to Nairobi.
McLain is less interested in Beryl’s already documented time as a bush pilot and dauntless aviator than in her childhood and adulthood in Kenya — a period overflowing with as much color, danger, and high emotion as the landscape she calls home. But if Beryl is the larger-than-life star of this drama, the subsidiary characters reject roles as mere walk-ons. These struggling farmers, dissolute Happy Valley expats, drunks, adventurers, aristocrats, scoundrels, husbands, tribesmen, lovers, and even the British royal family on safari step right into the spotlight. Most remarkable is Blixen herself, with whom Beryl shared Denys Finch Hatton, the hunk and master seducer both women adored and competed for.
McLain’s story starts when 2-year-old Beryl Cutterbuck and her family leave England in 1904 for 1,500 acres in Kenya. Unsuited to such a harsh life, Beryl’s mother, complaining — prophetically — that her father is a horseman, not a farmer, returns to England. Her departure signals the first of many losses for the child who, nevertheless, finds solace in the land and in helping her father train thoroughbreds. Mercifully neglected, she runs wild, surviving whatever hazards lurk in the bush. After a lion mauls her, she creates a mantra that will sustain her: “I could come through nearly anything my world might throw at me.”
And there’s a lot thrown at her. In addition to her mother’s abandonment, the tragedies mount: the death of her dog; a drought so awful her father starts to take “Scotch before breakfast, neat”; the loss of the beloved farm; her father’s move to Cape Town; the circumcision of her best friend, Kibii, that “would take away the boy I knew forever and also the fierce warrior girl who had loved him”; marriage at 16 to a sexually insensitive clod; and the abduction of her only child, sent back to England to be raised by her disapproving mother-in-law. The opposite of a woman lucky in love, Beryl manages to pick drunks, abusers, prigs — men who turn out not to be what they first seem. When her prince-on-a-white-steed appears, her experience as a fabled horse trainer confirms that Blixen’s lover, the dazzling, swashbuckling, poetry-reciting Hatton, will never be trained or domesticated. Leave it to Beryl to fall for the very model of a modern commitment-phobe.
Yet this girl has moxie. After every blow, she bounces back like a weighted-bottom toy, adapting, reinventing herself, ready to rebel. She’s always poised to mount a horse and take off: She runs away from school; she runs away from her marriage, fleeing “Njoro . . . the place I loved best.” If one thing doesn’t work, she tries something else. Ever resourceful, she earns an English horse-trainer’s license. She learns to fly: “The idea of it — of a future with wings — . . . began to cure me.”
Still, the greatest cure is Africa, described in soaring, lyrical prose as a continent that “got at you from the outside in and never let up, and never let you go.” Can the movie be far behind? What’s certain is that the reluctantly earthbound armchair reader will cherish this gift for the hidden adventurer in all of us. Like Africa as it’s so gorgeously depicted here, this novel will never let you go.
Circling the Sun
By Paula McLain
Ballantine, 384 pp., $28
Mameve Medwed has published five novels; her essays and reviews have appeared in The New York Times, Gourmet, and Washington Post. She can be reached at mameve@ mamevemedwed.com.