Book fictionalizes colonial Kenya in the 1920s

CIRCLING THE SUN. By Paula McLain. Ballantine Books. 366 pages. $28.

Paula McLain has assembled a dynamic combination of personalities for her novel “Circling the Sun” — Beryl Markham, a daring pilot and the first woman to fly solo, east to west, across the Atlantic; Denys Finch Hatton, a great white hunter; and Baroness Karen von Blixen (Isak Dinesen), who wrote “Out of Africa” and other works.

Set in Kenya in the 1920s and 1930s against the backdrop of Mount Kilimanjaro, the novel focuses mainly on these larger-than-life personalities, accompanied by a sparkling cast of supporting characters.

The story is told through the eyes of Beryl Markham, an English woman shaped by her experiences in Kenya. As a young child, her playtime was spent with members of the local tribe. Her father was busy establishing a farm and raising racehorses. Markham was abandoned by her mother, who returned to England, and left to her own devices.

Her life, therefore, was sometimes without rules. There were several failed marriages. Denys Finch Hatton was the love of her life, though he remained unavailable to her because of an affair with von Blixen. Life for Westerners during this period in Kenya was freewheeling, with many of the norms of European society ignored.

Markham worked as a racehorse trainer as many upper-class English settlers began to bring a favorite sport to Africa. She always sought to widen her horizons, and succeeded by learning to fly, eventually making that daring flight across the Atlantic. Her 1942 memoir “West with the Night” was much praised by Ernest Hemingway, who declared that Markham “can write rings around all of us who consider ourselves writers.”

Intriguing as the story is, though, McLain’s often flowery prose can interfere with the storytelling, and character introductions can be choppy. But the biggest disappointment is the author’s portrait of this proud, fearless woman. McLain’s emphasis on romantic liaisons diminishes Markham and her accomplishments. Otherwise, the book is worth reading for a history of that period in a beautiful part of Africa.

Reviewer Frances Monaco is a writer in Charleston.