Circling the Sun by Paula McLain is a wonderfully paced story about the a woman’s complex journey of self-discovery during the middle days of Kenyan colonization. When five year old Beryl’s mother leaves her and her father in Kenya to return to England, Beryl finds herself running wild in the African wilds. She is raised by a loving but distant father and a local native Kipsigis tribe. Her world is one where she has little and needs less, until she comes of age. Social pressures conflict with her upbringing, even as her father’s farm starts to fail, and she seems to come unstuck.
The challenges Beryl encounters as she tries to make her way in a world of conflicting ideas and changing ideals, it set against the historical backdrop of colonial Kenya in the 1920s. Trying to find her own way, she marries an older man she doesn’t love, the first in a string of missteps which will find her tossed around on waves of social hypocrisy. With the minimal help of good friends, Beryl cuts her own path through the jungles of her life, stumbling, falling, but always rising again.
McLain does a wonderful job in Circling the Sun painting the historical world of her characters while making it seem something of her own creation. Unlike most historical fiction, events aren’t used to punctuate the novel, but occur in a kind of subtle, natural flow. Beryl struggles with being a free-spirit while being forced into the conventions of colonial English society. Readers, both male and female, will find much to love about the character, while being drawn into the beauty, dangers and struggle that was Kenya. It will make you hunger to explore McLain’s world more deeply.
Five of five stars.