July 30, 2015 at 10:50 PM EDT

Circling the Sun

Current Status
In Season
Indie Rock
We gave it an A-

Behind every great man is a woman no one ever bothered to write a book about. Or enough of them, at least, that Paula McLain could easily pluck one from history’s footnotes, as she did with her phenomenally popular 2011 novel, The Paris Wife. By telling the tale of Ernest Hemingway’s messy, passionate first marriage from his previously unsung spouse’s point of view, McLain created a fresh sort of fiction-biography hybrid. In Circling the Sun, she pulls another overlooked name from the dusty stacks of the 20th century, though this one stands very much on her own: Beryl Markham, a pioneering aviator and adventurer who, McLain notes in Sun’s postscript, “would have fit perfectly into Hemingway’s muscular fiction if he had been able to write strong, unflinching women as well as he did men.” (In fact they did cross paths, and he even admitted that her 1942 memoir West With the Night made him feel like “simply a carpenter with words.”)

Markham was born in England in 1902 and moved to Kenya as a toddler, where she was largely left to raise herself after her homesick mother returned to London. Her free-range childhood and fierce independence—she became the country’s first certified female racehorse trainer before her 19th birthday—defied almost every expectation of the era’s well-bred young women, and it would be easy to paint her as a poster girl for protofeminism swashbuckling her way across the continent like some kind of sexy, self-realized lady Zorro. Markham’s freedom had limits, though, even in an expat community where affairs were “as de rigueur for colonists as quinine tablets for fever.” Her accomplishments were often eclipsed by the attention paid to her romantic conquests—which included a British prince and Denys Finch Hatton, the big-game hunter immortalized in Isak Dinesen’s Out of Africa—and she suffered for it. McLain makes the novel’s time and place come alive in long, lyrical passages, and she takes care to humanize her muse, tracing how much her mother’s abandonment damaged her and drove her ambitions. Like its high-flying subject, Sun is audacious and glamorous and hard not to be drawn in by. Beryl Markham may have married more than once, but she was nobody’s wife. A–

OPENING LINE “Before Kenya was Kenya, when it was millions of years old and yet still somehow new, the name belonged only to our most magnificent mountain.”

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