“She gave me a complicated smile. “You’ve heard the joke, haven’t you? Are you married or do you live in Kenya?“”
When my book-loving coworker suggested I read this novel, it didn’t take me long to reserve it at the library, nor did it take me long to read it. 350 pages, each one full of a romantic view of life in the 1920’s British East Africa as experienced by Beryl Clutterbuck. Though a fictional novel, Clutterbuck, who becomes Markham after her second marriage, is actually a nonfictional character, as well as the others described in the novel. When I finished reading, I couldn’t stop myself from doing some more historical research, trying to piece together the timeline and get better images of the people involved. I love when a book does that to me- inspires me to learn more.
Anyways, we are introduced to Beryl as a young girl living with her family in colonial Kenya. Her father is running a horse farm as a trainer and breeder of racing thoroughbreds, and Beryl wants to follow in his footsteps. When her mother and brother leave to return to England, she decides Kenya is her home, and she wants to stay with her father on the farm. As she reaches her teen years, she rebels against her father’s wishes to become a more suitable woman by taunting her new governess and running away from boarding school. She isn’t interested in becoming the expected civilized housewife. Growing up in the bush, she’s followed her best friend Kibii step for step as he learned from his tribe how to be a warrior. Matching his courage and skills, Beryl knows she can take on any man’s job with determination and hard work, and succeed. However, when she reaches the age of sixteen, the tables are turned when she learns her father’s business has gone bankrupt, and he must sell the farm and train at another stable, leaving Beryl to decide if she should stay on the farm, go work for her father, or become a wife.
She decides to marry Jock, a man who just moved to the colony near her father’s farm. The merge leaves Beryl with her father’s horses, but also with a loveless relationship. When it becomes obvious that the marriage isn’t going to work out, Beryl decides to separate from Jock to go work as a trainer on her friend and mentor’s farm. A turning point for Beryl, she becomes the first English licensed female horse trainer (at least in Kenya, maybe the world). As her reputation builds for her training, she also gains a reputation for being a nontraditional wife, if you catch my drift. Despite her successes at the racetrack, her personal life causes her difficulties in keeping clients. After some time, she requests a divorce from her husband. He isn’t willing to grant the divorce because he doesn’t want to be seen as a man who can’t control his wife, nor take a hit to his reputation. They fight- him by drinking and getting into physical altercations, her by holding her ground and occasionally another man. As her relationship with Jock flames out, a new one with Denys Finch- Hatton fires up.
While reading, not only does the personal drama keep things interesting, but the romance of living in such wild country in Africa draws you in. I loved imagining the red clay, the safari trips, the rain season, the flamingo flocks near where Beryl exercised her horses… all the imagery was lovely, even in terrifying moments. Because of McLain’s wordsmithery, I was living right with Beryl in the environment that she loved so much.
With so much depth and strength to the characters, the setting, and the overall complexity of human relationships, I’d recommend it to anyone, and especially for those with the additional interest in the female empowerment and equality. I’m amazed at what barriers Beryl broke back in the 1920/1930s, of how much has changed since pioneers like her broke traditional female roles, and of how we are still pushing to get through the glass ceiling today. “Circling the Sun” is a must read.