Tuesday, April 15, 2008

West With the Night by Beryl Markham (1942, 320 pgs.)

This poetic memoir of pilot Beryl Markham is more a gathering of meaningful memories than a story of her remarkable life. Born in 1902, she moved with her father from England to East Africa as a young child. She learned to train and breed horses, learned how to fly a plane, and at the age of 34 became the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean from east to west. I love Africa (as an armchair traveler only, sadly)--stories of Africa, pictures of Africa, movies of Africa (such as Out of Africa) . . . You get the idea. Her descriptions of the land and the people were so vibrant and I loved the words she chose to paint a picture of her memories. I was very much carried away with her beautiful descriptions, and then . . .

I went to the library's discussion of this book. I hadn't had time to do any extra research about Markham (okay, I wasn't even done with the book at the time), and I had so many questions about parts of her life that she didn't address. It turns out that there is doubt that she is the true author of the book (it could be one of her lovers or husbands, or more than one), and that she (or whoever wrote it) embellished parts of it. I should also note that a couple of readers were not as carried away with the writing as I was--they felt is was too flowery, over-the top, and overwrought. Here's a passage that I liked, but was probably not appreciated by them:

There are all kinds of silences and each of them means a different thing. There is the silence that comes with morning in a forest, and this is different from the silence of a sleeping city. There is silence after a rainstorm, and before a rainstorm, and these are not the same. There is the silence of emptiness, the silence of fear, the silence of doubt. There is a certain silence that can emanate from a lifeless object as from a chair lately used, or from a piano with old dust upon its keys, or from anything that has answered to the need of a man, for pleasure or for work. This kind of silence can speak. Its voice may be melancholy, but it is not always so; for the chair may have been left by a laughing child or the last notes of the piano may have been raucous and gay. Whatever the mood or the circumstance, the essence of its quality may linger in the silence that follows. It is a soundless echo.

So if you like this style, you will love this book, but if you're gagging as you read it, just pass this one by. I still would have to say that I enjoyed it, regardless of who really wrote it, but I do feel a bit cheated that some of the stories were not entirely true.


  1. Hi! I am the one with the Book Barn and saw your comments on it, then found your site through Tiffani's. I'm so excited to add some of the books you've read to my ever-growing list of books I want to read. (It's only up to 80 or so now!) If only the housework and the kids would take care of themselves...

  2. It sounds like a lovely book. I love reading of Africa, too.

  3. You weren't kidding when you say you like to read all kinds of books! I'm impressed, as I tend to stick with general fiction, especially thrillers, suspense, mysteries, that kind of thing. It's probably because it's comfortable, and easy. I just got the newest Kellerman on CD, and I'm looking forward to it, just because I've been familiar with his character for so long.

    That's my newest audiobook -- in terms of books, let me recommend to you "The Osgoode Trilogy" by Mary Martin. Great lead character in Larry Jenkins, a lawyer who really trieds to do the right thing. There are three great books in the trilogy, all with some pretty unique characters, "Conduct in Question" -- this one is destined to be a movie, I think!, plus "Final Paradox" and "A Trial of One." Martin really has some unforgettable characters here.

    I want to take Harry home with me...

  4. Annette - thanks for visiting! I love your site.
    Liz - Thanks for the suggestions. I'll have to find out about this Harry guy!

  5. I consider myself a big fan of this book. It's one of the few that I've kept a copy of over the years. I usually pass books on once I'm done with them.

    I was also disappointed to learn that Markham probably did not write the book, but in the end I don't really care. I think it works as fiction just as well, the truths it contains are just a true.

    Now, ask me about A Million Little Pieces on the other hand....

  6. First, I have to believe that Markham actually wrote most of this, not her husbands. This kind of description is a direct result of trying to describe one's personal experiences. The book is a enough a string of vignettes that I could see another person taking a large hand in editing and putting it all back together - but not the writing.
    Now, for a recommendation for another book on Africa: Scribbling the Cat (Alexandra Fuller). This is from a later time, also presumably autobiographical, but it will give you a insight into more of the history of Africa up to today. Very interesting, and I am much more knowledgeable for having read both.