Circling The Sun, by Paula McLain - book review: Beryl’s perils

Virago - £14.99

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The Independent Culture

Could there be a less romantic name than Beryl Clutterbuck? Perhaps not, but this isn’t a romantic novel; it’s based on real life. Paula McLain’s second novel, The Paris Wife, was a fictional memoir of Hadley Richardson, Ernest Hemingway’s first wife. Her third book reimagines another life, but the retiring Hadley has been exchanged for the forthright Beryl, and genteel Paris for dusty Kenya.

Circling The Sun is narrated by Beryl and she tells her life story, moving from her youth in colonial Kenya to her eventual fame as the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic. As a child, she was a tomboy, shunning Edwardian ribbons and bows, preferring to hunt with the local tribe, and even surviving a lion attack. Married off at 16, she ditched her husband to reinvent herself as a racehorse trainer.

Bolstered by her success, she indulges in affairs, including one with “Denys” who was immortalised by Karen Blixen in Out of Africa. But Beryl soon learns that “the Colony” is not as permissive as she thought. Those decadent expats who indulge in wife-swapping, snort cocaine, and while away their afternoons at The Muthiaga Club are still capable of being censorious, and when Beryl’s lusts and independence provoke scandal she is exiled to England. Undaunted she returns, marries an aristocrat, and decides to reinvent herself yet again, this time as a pilot.

Every phase of Beryl’s life is recounted with vigour, and we can assume that the author was charmed by her feisty subject, but each stage is so distinct that it’s hard to grasp Beryl’s character. There is no smooth melding of these disjointed phases, so it becomes hard to reconcile the tomboy with the society lady, or the seductress in white silks with the woman in the rattling cockpit.

While the plot fluctuates, the style of writing remains constant: vigorous, swift, and spangled with spectacular imagery, although there is a tendency to slip into the idiom of Mills and Boon: “His smile came slowly. His hazel eyes, when I looked into them, were bottomless.”

However, the novel was pleasingly dense. I’d feared a slight book, but, instead, it was intricate and ambitious, with a huge cast of characters and luscious descriptions. Indeed, the novel may have been rather too ambitious, as it quickens towards the end, as though the author ran out of space. The thing Beryl is famed for, her flying, is crammed into the closing section. Like her Gypsy Moth, the story gathers tremendous speed then simply lifts off and vanishes.