I 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.
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.
Still, 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.)