I enjoyed this fictionalized account of Beryl Markham's colorful life, full as it is of adventures on horseback and scandalous affairs with men. McLain seems to have done her research and clearly finds her subject fascinating, and her enthusiasm for Beryl's exploits is contagious.
Beryl Markham, born Beryl Clutterbuck, moved to Kenya with her parents as a child. Her mother soon fled back to England, finding Africa a bit much for her frail sensibilities, but Beryl flourished in her adopted homeland, shunning formal schooling and running wild over the hills and plains. Married at 16 out of economic necessity rather than love, she nevertheless struggled against the bonds of social propriety and flung herself toward adventure, in her career as a horse trainer and eventual aviatrix and in her love life. Beryl was not one to shy away from a challenge.
However, I have to admit reading about colonialism makes me squirmy, especially if said colonialism is glorified in any way. While it's perhaps admirable that Beryl was able to buck so many gender stereotypes of her day, insisting on training horses and flying airplanes and taking whatever physical and emotional risks came her way, I couldn't put out of my mind the fact that her entire lifestyle was built on a foundation of white supremacy over native peoples. And I found it impossible to feel sorry for her, as I believe I was intended to, when men inevitably tried to control her with money and sex. No matter what challenges she faced, she was still a white woman living in colonial Africa, not a helpless victim.
Also problematic: the only non-white character in the book who is referred to in any more detail than as someone's servant or stable boy is Kibii, Beryl's childhood friend, but even he lapses into one-dimensionality as an adult, never amounting to more than Beryl's loyal sidekick, up for whatever she suggests and not putting up a fuss when he disagrees with her choices. I half-expected her to pat him on the head and call him “good boy.”
I can't fault McLain for these issues—she's written an honest portrayal of Beryl's life and times. But call me a kill joy, I can't relish the reading of it, either.
With regards to Ballantine Books and NetGalley for the advance copy. On sale today, July 28.