Book Review: West With the Night by Beryl Markham

WestWithTheNightCover3Official 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.

*** this post contains affiliate links ***

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***

Amazon     Goodreads

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.

Do any of these titles sound interesting? Have you read West With the Night? What is your opinion about the authorship and believability of the work?


11 thoughts on “Book Review: West With the Night by Beryl Markham

  1. I had read this book years and years ago and loved it so that I saved for future reading. It never occurrred to me that the book wasn’t written by Beryl herself, I was simply amazed that she could write so beautifully when she was raised mostly by sneaking away from her schoolwork to go hunting with the boys of a nearby native village. And never seemed to read a lot.
    Regardless of the author, I loved the beautiful passages describing her life in Africa, which with a few exceptions seemed idyllic to me (who wouldn’t want to spend their days running wild with a spear instead of sitting in a stuffy classroom … I mean really … did anyone raise their hand?)

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I don’t think I would read this book. I can see how right away it reinforces some stereotypes, even though what happened to the author is true. For instance, at my college, any students from Africa are constantly asked to answer offensive questions, like “Do you ride elephants?” and “Do you have a pet lion?” There’s a weird “othering” that happens and stems from stereotypes about the civility of Africans, implying they don’t even have cities because they all live in the trees.

    The other part of this book that makes me hesitant is that it is written by a white woman who would have a lot of privilege in African simply due to her skin, let alone if her family had money or a position of authority. What is the point of her story other than to prove that she lived in a “funny land” and survived it?

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    1. Great comments! I see your points. As this book was published in 1942, there are a few bits that are definitely a sign of the times in the book. I think the book was written with her English or American friends as the intended audience, but, I did get the sense that Beryl really tried to learn the local languages and customs and she made a lot of friends with the locals. I couldn’t ever really figure out if she was wealthy or not. I think she might have been, as she grew up on a farm (I think it was a farm her father worked at – not one that he owned) and trained horses and learned to fly, but she never talked about money or fancy houses in the book. At one point in the book, I think it was one chapter where she talked about her youth, she mentioned how she was sleeping in a hut and a leopard came into the hut. The book wasn’t really about plot, so one of the issues I had was that I couldn’t really get any sense of story from the book, so I honestly think she was just writing because she loved Africa. So much of this book was about the land itself, which she considered her home, and not really about any kind of plot. I’d be interested to read either the historical fiction account, Circling the Sun, or the nonfiction account, Straight on Till Morning, to see how those authors interpret Beryl and her life. Maybe they make it a bit more interesting, or at least have some kind of theme to the book.


      1. Ah! Your comments about her befriending everyone around her and appreciating Africa as it is really saves her in my eyes. However, the book still sounds adrift. I feel that way now with a book I’m reading: Slouching Towards Bethlehem, which has different unconnected essays written by Joan Didion in the 60s. One chapter she’s reporting on a possible murder, the next she’s talking about John Wayne filming his last movie.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Yes, that book sounds very much in tone like West With the Night! I don’t like books that jump around like this. In this one for example in one chapter the author is a young girl watching a horse give birth, and then in another she’s flying in her plane looking for a missing man (that is the opening chapter I believe). I think this disjointed-ness is why I don’t really care so much for books of short stories.

          Liked by 1 person

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