Review #13: West With the Night by Beryl Markham

Beryl Markham is definitely one of the top 10 coolest women I’ve ever read about. Seriously–talk about an empowered woman! Markham was smart, independent, and years before her time. In short, she was a total badass.

Markham grew up in Kenya in the early 20th century, living with her father on their enormous property and learning how to hunt, trek, and ride horses. She was the first licensed horse trainer in Kenya; later, in 1936, she became the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic from east to west. She spent a number of years working as a bush pilot (a nearly completely male-dominated career at the time). She had affairs with dozens of men, including the Duke of Gloucester and Antoine de Saint-Exupery (the author of The Little Prince). She was best friends with Karen Blixen, who wrote Out of Africa, and Ernest Hemingway was one of her biggest fans (of West With the Night, he wrote:

“She has written so well, and marvellously well, that I was completely ashamed of myself as a writer. I felt that I was simply a carpenter with words, picking up whatever was furnished on the job and nailing them together and sometimes making an okay pig pen. But this girl, who is to my knowledge very unpleasant and we might even say a high-grade bitch, can write rings around all of us who consider ourselves as writers … it really is a bloody wonderful book.”

Well, Papa Hemingway and I don’t agree on a lot of things (wonderful writer, total asshole) but we do agree on this! West With the Night is a really, really good book. The memoir follows Markham from her childhood in Kenya through her experiences as a bush pilot, essentially recounting the cool adventures she had and bizarre characters that she encountered. The prose is stunning and absorbing–I was anticipating it being a little dry, as it was written so long ago, but Markham is an engaging and interesting narrator, and writes beautifully. It’s clear how much she loves Africa, describing it gorgeous and raw language. As someone who grew up there myself (albeit in the south), I found myself filled with nostalgia and recognition at many of her descriptions of the landscape.

I also really liked the interesting themes she explores, such as race and culture. She walked the line between two worlds, African and European, and thus brings a really unique perspective to the familiar discussions of colonialism and culture in the early 20th century. This also brings a really interesting aspect of identity into play–she doesn’t truly belong in either place, as her experiences with each culture preclude her from being completely assimilated into the other. I really related with this aspect of the memoir, and it only deepened my appreciation for Markham’s work.

Overall, I highly recommend this memoir–Markham’s prose and captivating character made this a wonderful reading experience.

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