Great Africa Reads: West With the Night or Circling the Sun?

I don’t think you can review Circling the Sun, a historical novel about Beryl Markham – pioneering woman bush pilot, horse trainer, adventurer, scorned lover, a woman much ahead of her time but also a complete product of her time and place – without also reviewing the memoir Beryl Markham herself wrote about her life, so please forgive me if I end up talking about both.

A long time ago, shortly after arriving in Africa, I read and reviewed Beryl Markham’s great classic, West with the Night. A book that anyone interested in Africa should read. Here is how I began my review:

Few books capture the spirit of Africa as well as West with the Night. I won’t try to summarize it here because I won’t do it justice, but there are tales of lions, courageous dogs, horse breeding, flying, and elephant hunts, all laced with a great deal of wisdom.
Even though it was written in the 1930s and is set in Kenya (or, as it was then called, British East Africa), it brings alive so many things I’ve come to cherish about South Africa during our brief stay here – the endless savannah, the adventure, the humility of its people. I can highly recommend it, whether you’re interested in Africa or not.

bush plane in Botswana
This picture was taken in Botswana in 2012, some 80 years after the events of West with the Night, but it is not that different from how I imagine the flying scenes from the book, sans runway.

To read or not to read Circling the Sun after an already nearly perfect book that couldn’t possibly be topped? That was the question.

I admit at first I was skeptical. I resisted reading it for quite some time. I loved West with the Night and didn’t think any other writer would do Beryl Markham justice. Also, reading some Amazon reviews, I was worried that Circling the Sun would not much get into the flying part at all, and that Beryl didn’t come across as very nice or even likeable.

I needn’t have worried. While it’s true that Paula McLain’s retelling doesn’t really cover the flying (unless you count the prologue and the very end), I still loved this version just as much as West with the Night. Or as an essential complement to it. The two should be read together – I’m now motivated to re-read West with the Night with this slightly new voice in mind, filling in the holes and marveling in the breathtaking scenery all over again.

The next picture is also from Botswana, the Okavango Delta from the air. There is a scene in West with the Night where Beryl is flying elephant hunters into remote areas of Kenya, and they end up finding lots of elephants but are cut off due to flooding. Or maybe she is called to come rescue them from the island they’re stuck on without food, I can’t quite remember. But this is how I imagine that scene:

Okavango Delta aerial view

Elephants in Tau Game Reserve

I don’t have any good pictures evoking Circling the Sun. If you want to totally immerse  yourself in that scenery, I suggest you watch Out of Africa again. Or just imagine Robert Redford in his younger years.

I “read” the audio version of the book* and perhaps that makes me biased in a positive way: it is read beautifully, just the right softened British accent one would associate with Colonial Kenya, and you can hear her sense of wonder and love for Africa in every sentence. Perhaps it would have been slightly less convincing in book form, I can’t be sure, audio books often have that effect. But I know that I absolutely loved Beryl’s story as imagined by McLain: how she grew up in Kenya, how her mother’s leaving left a big hole in her heart, how her friendship with Kibii became such an important part of her life, how she started training horses and kept at it through all the failures and challenges, and yes, how she fell in love with the man she couldn’t have and ended up marrying those she could have but didn’t love. I don’t remember the love triangle between Denys Finch Hatton and Karen Blixen being such an important part in West with the Night or whether it was mentioned at all, but I’m glad McLain chose this to be at the center of her story. It makes the book much more of a romance (without being cheesy) than Beryl’s rather matter-of-fact style ever could. Don’t get me wrong, West with the Night is a literary marvel with many passages you’ll want to read again and again for their pure poetry, but it is not a love story.

Circling the Sun is (a love story), and quite a good one at that.

It should be at the very center of your Africa Bookshelf.



* I cannot tell you how much reading I nowadays get done via Audible (and Overdrive and OneClick Digital – Audible’s free library-supplied cousins) while chopping vegetables, unloading the dishwasher, and, lately, spring-cleaning windows. In fact, living in a place like Johannesburg with its god-awful traffic, an Audible subscription is a thing you should not live without one second longer. 

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