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Novel set in Kenya (white mischief…)

20th October 2016

Circling the Sun by Paul McLain, novel set in Kenya.

This novel is one of the choices for the Richard and Judy Current Reads, Autumn 2016.

novel set in kenya

I came to Paula’s writing when I read The Paris Wife, the story of Hadley, Ernest Hemingway’s first wife. For me it proved to be a tremendously rounded and well crafted book and was very much looking forward to Circling the Sun, another look at life in the earlier 20th Century, but through the lens of the colonial power in Kenya – or British East Africa as it was then known. First it was a German protectorate and then it came under the rule of the British.

Beryl Markham, as she came to be known, is at the heart of the story, from her early days when she arrived in the country at age 4 and then through various adult intimate relationships. The author gained inspiration from Beryl’s memoir “West With The Night” and has drawn a fictionalised account of her life in this country, far away from home. It was a country that offered opportunities galore and multiple hazards, and set against such a colourful background, the white colonials found a rhythm of white mischief that kept them entertained – Kenya was a country where they could set their own standards and make their own rules: “Colony life was so small  and confined the same people kept popping up in different combinations‘. This era was excellently portrayed in the biography “White Mischief” by James Fox.

Beryl’s mother abandons her at an early age and moves back to the UK, leaving her alone with her father in the inhospitable terrain, but Beryl soon adapts and has a childhood that others can only imagine, running free with the local children and learning their ways and traditions. Western pressure to conform is never far away and she finds herself married to Jock. This unhappy liaison is only highlighted by her deep attraction to Denys Finch Hatton, game hunter and pilot, who was also in a relationship of sorts with Karen Blixen (or Baroness von Blixen-Finecke to give her her full title and penned her well know autobiography “Out of Africa“). The relationships amongst this elite increasingly feel claustrophobic and incestuous, as the author peels back the layers of a deeply troubled society.

Beryl learned how to take care of horses and produce winners of classic races, her gift in this area was widely acknowledged – and her interactions with the equestrian establishment are described at length in the book; it was through Denys that her interest in learning to fly became more pronounced. And seemingly there was nothing that this fearless woman balked at.

The title of circling the sun reflects to some degree her flying aptitude but also calls upon the myth of Icarus who flew too close to the sun causing the wax holding his wings together to melt, just like the society of 1920s British East Africa, too many people pushed the boundaries and had their fingers singed if not fully burned.

Enjoy this dip into another world and the sense of a culture that feels quite alien and very much of another era. The author writes convincingly and grippingly. She formulates a vivid sense of individual lives of a colonial powers.

Tina for the TripFiction Team

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And for more literary gems set in KENYA, just click here.

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