Official Synopsis from Amazon: Beryl Markham’s West with the Night is a true classic, a book that deserves the same acclaim and readership as the work of her contemporaries Ernest Hemingway, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, and Isak Dinesen.
If the first responsibility of a memoirist is to lead a life worth writing about, Markham succeeded beyond all measure. Born Beryl Clutterbuck in the middle of England, she and her father moved to Kenya when she was a girl, and she grew up with a zebra for a pet; horses for friends; baboons, lions, and gazelles for neighbors. She made money by scouting elephants from a tiny plane. And she would spend most of the rest of her life in East Africa as an adventurer, a racehorse trainer, and an aviatrix―she became the first person to fly nonstop from Europe to America, the first woman to fly solo east to west across the Atlantic. Hers was indisputably a life full of adventure and beauty.
And then there is the writing. When Hemingway read Markham’s book, he wrote to his editor, Maxwell Perkins: “She has written so well, and marvelously well, that I was completely ashamed of myself as a writer . . . [She] can write rings around all of us who consider ourselves as writers . . . It is really a bloody wonderful book.”
Genre: Memoir, Non-fiction
Setting: from around 1906 to approx 1942, mainly set in Kenya, which at the time of the book it was British East Africa.
My Copy Came From: I purchased my copy from Amazon.
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Review: A lovely, lyrical book that doesn’t have much plot. West With the Night by Beryl Markham is a different book. It’s different in that the book is a memoir, but it isn’t told in a linear way. Chapters bounce around to different time periods, and different times in Beryl’s life, and there isn’t any plot that connects all of these chapters together. It almost reads like short stories. You can pick the book up, read a chapter, any chapter, and then set the book down and not pick it up for months and just fall right back in.
I have lifted my plane from the Nairobi airport for perhaps a thousand flights and I have never felt her wheels glide from the earth into the air without knowing the uncertainty and the exhilaration of firstborn adventure.
The prose is absolutely gorgeous. The descriptive passages transport the reader to British East Africa, and to the world of elephants, horses, siafu ants, hunting, and flying planes. There are several passages about hunting, and gruesome injuries, so do keep that in mind before picking up this book if you’re sensitive to that.
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 lived and grew without adding machines and newsprint and brick-walled streets and the tyranny of clocks.
This is a difficult book to review in that there isn’t really any plot to the book. It’s more of a meandering journey through Beryl’s life, through Africa, and this is not a book to “race” through. You’ll miss so much of the beautiful writing if you try to read this quickly.
Africa is mystic; it is wild; it is a sweltering inferno; it is a photographer’s paradise, a hunter’s Valhalla, an escapist’s Utopia. It is what you will, and it withstands all interpretations. It is the last vestige of a dead world or the cradle of a shiny new one. To a lot of people, as to myself, it is just ‘home’. It is all these things but one thing – it is never dull.
There is somewhat of a “controversy” regarding the authorship and authenticity of the book. In some copies of the book (my copy did not include it) there is a foreword that indicates that perhaps not everything is true, or at least to not believe everything you read. I have not read this foreword, and I am honestly a bit confused, as I didn’t find anything in the book to be so sensational as to be unbelievable. In regards to the authorship, some say that Beryl’s ex-husband wrote some of the book. This was a book club read for me, and most of my book club felt that the descriptive passages felt like a different author than the passages that were more “action oriented”. I honestly didn’t find this to be the case, and I have no reason to think that she didn’t write the book, or most of the book, and have no trouble believing what was written. I think I was the lone member of my book club to have this opinion however.
Several famous people at the time make appearances here, from big-game hunter Denys Finch Hatton, to Blix, Baron von Blixen Finecke, the ex-husband of Karen Blixen (author of Out of Africa).
The shores of its lake are rich in silence, lonely with it, but the monotonous flats of sand and mud that circle the shallow water are relieved of dullness, not by only an occasional bird or a flock of birds or by a hundred birds; as long as the day lasts Nakuru is no lake at all, but a crucible of pink and crimson fire – each of its flames, its million flames, struck from the wings of a flamingo. Ten thousand birds of such exorbitant hue, caught in the scope of an eye, is a sight that loses credence in one’s own mind years afterward. But ten thousand flamingos on Lake Nakuru would be a number startling in its insignificance, and a hundred thousand would barely begin the count.
West With the Night was a different read. I can’t say that I truly liked it, as it was a bit too disjointed and all over the place in how it was told, but I really did love all of the descriptive passages about Africa. Some of this writing was just absolutely beautiful, and while there really wasn’t much plot here to make one feel any sense of urgency to read it, there is something here for readers who enjoy reading books about the beauty of Africa and the outdoors.
Bottom Line: A meandering read with beautiful prose.
LINKS ***the Amazon links are affiliate links which means I receive a small commission if you click the link and make a purchase***
If West With the Night sounds interesting, you may also want to read:
- Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen (pen name of Karen Blixen) – memoir of life on a coffee plantation in Kenya during this same time period. The author’s ex-husband, and also her lover, have appearances in West With the Night.
- The Aviator’s Wife by Melanie Benjamin – historical fiction about Anne Morrow Lindbergh, another aviatrix and author.
- Circling the Sun by Paula McLain – a historical fiction account of Beryl Markham’s life.
- Leopard at the Door by Jennifer McVeigh – Historical fiction set in Kenya during the 1950s.
- Straight on Till Morning by Mary S. Lovell – a non-fiction account of Beryl Markham’s life.