A full-throttle dive into the psyche and romantic attachments of Beryl Markham—whose 1936 solo flight across the Atlantic in a two-seater prop plane (carrying emergency fuel in the extra seat) transfixed the world.
As conceived in this second historical by novelist McLain (The Paris Wife, 2011, etc.), Markham—nee Beryl Clutterbuck—is the neglected daughter of an impecunious racehorse trainer who fails to make a go at farming in British East Africa and a feckless, squeamish mother who bolts back to England with their older son. Set on her own two feet early, she is barely schooled but precociously brave and wired for physical challenges—a trait honed by her childhood companion Kibii (a lifelong friend and son of a local chief). In the Mau forest—“before Kenya was Kenya”—she finds a “heaven fitted exactly to me.” Keeping poised around large mammals (a leopard and a lion also figure significantly) is in her blood and later gains her credibility at the racecourse in Nairobi, where she becomes the youngest trainer ever licensed. Statuesque, blonde, and carrying an air of self-sufficiency—she marries, disastrously, at 16 but is granted a separation to train Lord Delamere’s bloodstock—Beryl turns heads among the cheerfully doped and dissolute Muthaiga Club set (“I don’t know what it is about Africa, but champagne is absolutely compulsory here”), charms not one but two heirs to the British crown at Baroness Karen Blixen’s soiree, and sets her cap on Blixen’s lover, Denys Fitch Hatton. She’ll have him, too, and much enjoyment derives from guessing how that script, and other intrigues, will play out in McLain’s retelling. Fittingly, McLain has Markham tell her story from an altitude of 1,800 feet: “I’m meant to do this,” she begins, “stitch my name on the sky.” Popularly regarded as “a kind of Circe” (to quote Isak Dinesen biographer Judith Thurman), the young woman McLain explores owns her mistakes (at least privately) and is more boxed in by class, gender assumptions, and self-doubt than her reputation as aviatrix, big game hunter, and femme fatale suggests.
Ernest Hemingway, who met Markham on safari two years before her Atlantic crossing, tagged her as “a high-grade bitch” but proclaimed her 1942 memoir West with the Night “bloody wonderful.” Readers might even say the same of McLain’s sparkling prose and sympathetic reimagining.