The Book Worm: Review: West With the Night

Friday, February 12, 2016

Review: West With the Night


west with the night, beryl markham, book review


✩✩

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."
With a new introduction by Sara Wheeler―one of Markham's few legitimate literary heirs―West with the Night should once again take its place as one of the world's great adventure stories.

Genre: non-fiction

Publishing date: August 2012, for the current Kindle edition, but it's obviously a much older book
Offensive content: nothing special to report, but you should take into account that this book was written when Kenya was still a British colony and from the perspective of a white British woman. Some concepts and ideas need to be read within the specific context of time and place.

Review:  

I found this book totally by chance while browsing Amazon's 100 Biographies and Memoirs to Read in a Lifetime, and I'm so glad I did. It's a beautifully written memoir of one of the great ladies of the beginning of aviation, and literally transports us to a different time and place. 

Beryl Markham was born in 1902 in Britain but moved to Kenya when she was four. She was the first licensed female racehorse trainer in Kenya and the first woman to, in 1936, fly across the Atlantic from east to west. You can check more about her here, but both from the book and from other materials I found online, she was mostly a free spirit. And while her life is not exempt from scandal and eccentricity, I think she throughly represents what Africa was at that point in time. 

West With the Night reminds me a lot of Karen Blixen/Isak Dinesen's Out of Africa, but in my opinion West With the Night is much more organized and well written. And a lot less boring too. Despite it's undeniable beauty, Out of Africa is one of the few stories where I find the movie much, much better than the book. 

My favorite quote: "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."



Also, in case you are curious, here's some footage I found on YouTube of Beryl Markham's arrival in New York after her trans-Atlantic flight: 



All, in all, West With the Night is a book I thoroughly recommend. In addition to being a wonderful memoir, it gives you an important insight into the history of Africa in the first half of the 20th century, and knowledge is never wasted

Have a wonderful weekend,

the book worm, book blog



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