This book was a gift from a friend that took me far too long to get to but I’m so glad that I finally moved it to the top of my reading pile. This “fictional” story based on the true life of Beryl Markham is a compelling read because Beryl, herself, is a fascinating character who seems to have been born about 100 years too soon and who never stops struggling against what society expects her to do.
In 1904, when Beryl is only a toddler, her parents move from England to Kenya to a “farm” that Beryl describes as “fifteen hundred acres of untouched bush and three weather-beaten huts.” Beryl’s mother lasts barely two years before she heads back to England with Beryl’s brother in tow, leaving Beryl and her father behind. As a result, Beryl grows up motherless, running wild and partially raised by the Kipsigis families who live on her father’s land. As a white girl, she isn’t forced into traditional female tribal roles and spends a lot of time with a Kip boy her age, Kibii, riding horses and taking on physical challenges. In many respects, her father raises her like a son and as the family business moves from simply growing and milling wheat to developing a growing stable of thoroughbred horses, Beryl becomes an accomplished horsewoman in her own right and sets her sights on being the first successful female horse trainer in Kenya.
Though Beryl pushes boundaries professionally, she is less successful in the relationship department. Circumstances force her into an early marriage and though initially, it seems like things might work out, the relationship implodes in ways that are painful to watch. However, that is just the beginning of Beryl’s adventures—both occupationally and in love. Some of the ins and outs of her story have faded (since I read this over a month ago) but what still remains in my mind is the beauty of living in Africa and the frequent dangers and challenges. Farms burn, people are mauled by lions, and businesses fail. Also, there is the stifling insularity of the white community in Kenya—lots of flapperesque partner switching, affairs and unhappy marriages.
All this overlaps with my memories of the movie, Out of Africa, because Beryl becomes part of a famous love triangle—falling in love with Denys Finch Hatton even as she becomes good friends with Karen Blixen. I ended this book both with a lot of admiration for Beryl Markham but also a desire to read her book, West with the Night, and to revisit both the book and movie version of Out of Africa.