West With the Night
By Beryl Markham
Paperback, 294 pages
1983, North Point Press
This is an autobiography (or perhaps more of a memoir? Honestly, I’m not clear on the difference between the two, if any) that shares snippets of Beryl’s life on a horse farm in Africa and later her transition into pilot, which for women in that time was very rare. Being a female horse trainer was also rare and Beryl seems to have lead an extraordinary life for a woman in the mid-1900s. She was actually the first person to fly alone across the Atlantic Ocean from East to West.
Back in August (wow, was it really that long ago?) I read Circling the Sun by Paula McLain. It’s a fantastic piece of historical fiction covering Beryl’s life and from the author’s note it does seem that McLain did her best to stay true to Beryl’s experiences. At the time, I hadn’t known Beryl was real and when I discovered that she’d written her own book, I was immediately interested. I regret that it took me four months to pick up this book.
Beryl is a wonderful writer and what set this apart from the few other biographies I’ve read is that Beryl only shares snippets of her life with us. She doesn’t detail her life from birth – in fact, compared to what McLain wrote about (Beryl’s childhood on her father’s horse farm, her estranged relationship with her mother and brother, her marriages, her affair, her child, her father’s second marriage…), Beryl’s book seems sparse. Yet, I think we get a real look into who she was. She highlights poignant and important moments in her life, some action-packed and others more emotionally charged. Her love for horses and flying is clear, despite the negative experiences she’s had with each.
This book was a slow read for me – at just under 300 pages, I didn’t expect it to take me a week – but it was never dry or boring. I don’t mind that I read McLain’s book first, mostly because without it, I never would have known Beryl or her book existed, but also because in McLain’s novel, we get an overview of Beryl’s life and then when reading Beryl’s novel we get to see what she feels readers should know. I’ve never read a work of historical fiction and an autobiography about the same person, so this was an interesting experience for me. I’d recommend both books!