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Adventure /Biographical Fiction
20th Cent (pre WWII)
In 1936, aged thirty-four, Beryl Markham set out to be the first woman to fly single-handed across the Atlantic. This is where the book begins and ends, but in between it tells of what went into the making of a remarkable woman.
The voice is Beryl’s, as Paula McLain imagines it. Everything is therefore immediate; we see Kenya and the people who adopt it as their home only as they impact upon her. We have to decide if we can trust the narrator; and from the beginning, when her mother abandons her and she turns to Lady Delamere for female guidance, she seems almost incapable of being dishonest.
Her chaotic upbringing by her father teaches her everything about horses, and not much about anything else. She runs free with the tribal children, learning how to hunt with them, until, as a female, she is no longer permitted to do so - an exclusion that is hard for her to accept.
She is a child who does not fit comfortably into either the colonial or the native world, but she knows where she wants to be. At 16, when the First World War causes her father to fall into financial difficulties which force him to leave the farm, she marries a neighbour rather than give up the land where she feels most at home.
She embarks upon a series of affairs amongst a set of people to whom morals only apply if one is caught out. As an expert horse trainer, her skills are much in demand, but even that will not save her from ostracism if she goes too far.
Beryl learns not to try to fit in, but to make her own way in the ex-pat world of the Happy Valley set. She is who she is, and her mistakes are her own. She finds love, but that is also a betrayal. A mould-breaker but still a product of her time, perhaps she could only have existed at that point in history, in that country. Kenya made her, and broke her, and made her again.
The novelisation of a life is a balancing act; there are no photographs of the real characters – Beryl, Karen Blixen of Out of Africa fame, Denys Finch-Hatton, Prince Harry, the Delameres – perhaps because, however accurate the facts, this is not an biography, but a sketch of a snapshot of a moment in time.
Beautifully and at times lyrically written, the book left me wanting to know more, and to go in search of those photographs, as though to see them would help me to better understand how it could all have happened. They didn’t. Photographs are posed, and distancing, and therefore less honest than Beryl appears through the words ascribed to her.
Paula McLain used Beryl’s own writings as a first-hand resource for what is a well-researched, engaging read, sympathetic to a subject who never courted sympathy. I recommend it.
© Lorraine Swoboda