West With The Night by Beryl Markham (Classics Club Spin #18)

81yAt9aNOELI feel almost guilty not liking Beryl Markham’s West With The Night more. Almost all of the Goodreads reviews on the first page are glowing 4 and 5-star reviews and many blogger friends recommended it highly. I had high hopes for this memoir published in 1942, but it took me a week to get only halfway through its 300 pages. I then had to put it down for another week and read something else that held my attention more (a mystery novel – are you surprised?) When I picked it up again I felt refreshed and I was able to finish it in a day. I guess this is what you’d call a real mixed bag?

What I Liked:

The writing. Mostly. The middle section about horse racing nearly killed me. But everything else was good. The writing has a very cinematic, romantic quality to it.

As the (impala/zebra/wildebeest) herd moved it became a carpet of rust-brown and grey and dull red. It was not like a herd of cattle or of sheep, because it was wild, and it carried with it the stamp of wilderness and the freedom of a land still more a possession of Nature than of men. To see ten thousand animals untamed and not branded with the symbols of human commerce is like scaling an unconquered mountain for the first time, or like finding a forest without roads or footpaths, or the blemish of an axe. You know then what you had always been told – that the world once lives and grew without adding machines and newsprint and brick-walled streets and the tyranny of clocks.

Markham led a most unconventional life especially for the time. She was born in England but raised by her father in Kenya (her mother left the family when Markham was little.) Markham hunted and tracked and camped and essentially was given the run of the place. There’s a riveting story of helping birth a foal when she was a teenager. She was a licensed racehorse trainer at the age of 18. She then learned to fly an airplane and in 1936 became the first woman to fly over the Atlantic Ocean non-stop, solo, from east to west. beryl-markham

Being alone in an aeroplane for even so short a time as a night and a day, irrevocably alone, with nothing to observe but your instruments and your own  hands in semi-darkness, nothing to contemplate but the size of your small courage, nothing to wonder about but the belief, faces, and the hopes rooted in your mind – such an experience can be as startling as the first awareness of a stranger walking by your side at night. You are the stranger.

What I Didn’t Like:

I wanted more. I wanted to know Ms. Markham better – I felt there was a cool reserve coming off of her, as if there was a barrier between she and I. As polished as the writing was it felt distant. I knew her feelings about maps and planes and horses and the Kenyan men who worked for her father and treated her with the utmost respect but I didn’t get her feelings about her father or any of her lovers or what it felt like not to have a mother growing up. I didn’t get any hint of what it was like as a woman in a society made almost totally of men. This memoir contained many stories about her adventures and not much about her inner life at all.

Also, Book Three, about the racehorses…I just wish I had skipped that section. I’d read one or two pages and fall asleep. It took me a week to drum up the desire to pick the book back up. And I’m glad I did, because it got better. Although the elephant hunting chapters were tough to read from a modern-day perspective. And then there’s that whole colonizer’s perspective of the different ethnic groups of Kenyans. On the whole she is more respectful than not, but some of her thoughts on the inherent characteristics of certain tribes made me uncomfortable. I realize this was written a long time ago, so I take that into account.

23995231Still, I am glad that I read this. I certainly would like to know more about Ms. Markham and would possibly read a biography on her in the future. I also want to read the historical fiction version of her life by Paula McLain called Circling the Sun. As Markham was involved in a love triangle with Denys Finch Hatton and Karen Blixen (Isak Dinesen) I would like to read Out of Africa. There is a lot here still to discover and this memoir only made me more curious.

Rebecca (Bookish Beck) was kind enough to ask me if I wanted to do a buddy read for this book, and I discovered that it’s a tricky thing to do. People read at different paces and you don’t want to spoil anything. Plus I’m so darn moody with my reading. But I thank her for reading this with me – we checked in on Twitter and it was neat to know that someone across the ocean was also reading this classic memoir. I would still recommend this book if you are the sort of reader who enjoys stories of adventure or if you’re interested in early 20th century Kenya. Markham’s descriptions of the natural world and flying are especially compelling and well drawn. Just don’t expect too much personal reflection or emotion.

(This is the 6th book I’ve read from my Classics Club list.)

23 thoughts on “West With The Night by Beryl Markham (Classics Club Spin #18)

  1. I’ve got a review coming out tomorrow as part of my final 20 Books of Summer roundup. I ended up liking it a lot more than you did, mostly for the writing. True, though, I could have done with less of the horse racing 😉 It’s interesting what you say about her withholding her emotions and personal life. Perhaps that didn’t bother me as much because I’ve already seen ‘behind the scenes’ through the McLain novel, which features things like her disastrous first marriage at age 16 (I had totally forgotten about that until I went back to my McLain review) and her affairs. I found her life story really exciting on the whole.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Marriage at 16?!? What?? See, that’s what I’m talking about! 🙂 Now I’m definitely reading the McLain book sooner rather than later. She undoubtedly had one of the most interesting lives I’ve come across in a while.


  2. This sounds kind of disappointing, I’d been curious about it. It’s so funny when you got to the part about Karen Blixen and Out of Africa because your feelings on this were somewhat similar to mine about that book (from what I remember of it.) I think a lot of it has to do with the times and their cultural backgrounds, so even writing about their personal lives with the vantage of some perspective, they come across as cool or closed-off, not to mention how they deal with topics like colonization and the African cultures and people.

    The writing really does seem beautiful from the excerpts you shared, but I’m not sure I could get through the horse racing book…yikes…or the elephant hunting, although you put it very well, it’s a product of its times.

    Great to read your thoughts on this one, excellent review!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much. I think it’s still worth reading and perhaps you’ll like it better than I did. Rebecca liked it a lot. But as she mentioned in her comment, she’d gotten a lot of backstory on Markham through the Paula McLain novel. So interesting about the parallel to Out of Africa.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. It sounds like you’re looking for a memoir about a specific part of her life, or maybe even an autobiography. Memoirs are often focused on a single time period or theme in a person’s life. This book appears to focus on her adventures. Bummer!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve read memoirs that feel more personal than this one, that’s what I meant. But I think perhaps it’s just a product of its time, and as Whatsnonfiction mentioned in the comments, Karen Blixen’s Out of Africa (written about the same time) also struck her as impersonal and distant. But I am still glad that I read this, it was interesting enough.


      1. Yes. I think. 🙂 I read a lot of memoirs – many of them are comic ones like those from Amy Poehler, Tina Fey, Mindy Kaling. Others are more serious like Trevor Noah’s, Gabrielle Union’s, Glennon Melton’s etc. They are not really about action/adventure, but about a person’s upbringing or childhood or young adulthood or marriage, etc. But they are all written in the last ten years and so the societal context is undoubtedly different than one written by a British-born/Kenyan-raised woman in the early 1940’s. So perhaps that accounts for the difference in the reading experience.


  4. A pity that she wasn’t more revealing about herself leaving you feeling distanced. I think on the whole I prefer biography to memoir because they tend to be more complete – people writing their own memoirs don’t always want to reveal everything, especially if they’re writing about people who are still part of their lives, I suppose…

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Hmmm I could see why you’d put this down-you did a great review of it, but I must be honest that I think it sounds a bit boring-which I feel terrible for admitting because she was clearly such a formidable woman…but still. Horse racing? yuck.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I remember really enjoying Jane Smiley’s novel, Horse Heaven, which is set around a racing track and includes (IIRC – it’s been close to twenty years, I think) the horses’ POV amongst many two-legged characters’ perspectives. I’m glad to know about that part in this memoir as it’s been on my TBR for ages and I do plan to make a point of it eventually. So I will steel myself for that (and the elephant parts – aiyiyi). As one of the other readers above mentioned, many of the comments you’ve made here I could also see you making about Out of Africa, so perhaps look for the right mood for that one too? Have you seen the film of it? (It’s also very slow, as I recall, but beautiful and atmospheric, and the reason I read Karen Blixen / Isak Dinesen to begin with).

    Liked by 1 person

      1. But you’ve got a lot of catching up to do. Are you doing the shows that go along with them too? Have you been studying up on the timeline so you fill all the gaps in properly? *laughs*


  7. Circling the Sun is on my TBR, but this memoir is not. Why? I struggle with non-fiction writing from before the 1980s. I don’t know what it is about the writing style which has changed, but I just… cannot seem to connect with the writing style. I feel that might be the case here, as well. That said, Ms. Markham’s life sounds soooo fascinating! I’m glad you’ll be continuing to learn more about her and her life, even if it is through fiction. That pursuit speaks volumes!

    Liked by 1 person

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