West With The Night by Beryl Markham

West With the NightWest With the Night
by Beryl Markham
Rating: ★★★★★
Publication Date: January 1, 1942
Genre: memoir
Pages: 306
ReRead?: Yes
Project: a century of women

The classic memoir of Africa, aviation, and adventure—the inspiration for Paula McLain’s Circling the Sun and “a bloody wonderful book” (Ernest Hemingway).

Beryl Markham’s life story is a true epic. Not only did she set records and break barriers as a pilot, she shattered societal expectations, threw herself into torrid love affairs, survived desperate crash landings—and chronicled everything. A contemporary of Karen Blixen (better known as Isak Dinesen, the author of Out of Africa), Markham left an enduring memoir that soars with astounding candor and shimmering insights.

A rebel from a young age, the British-born Markham was raised in Kenya’s unforgiving farmlands. She trained as a bush pilot at a time when most Africans had never seen a plane. In 1936, she accepted the ultimate challenge: to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean from east to west, a feat that fellow female aviator Amelia Earhart had completed in reverse just a few years before. Markham’s successes and her failures—and her deep, lifelong love of the “soul of Africa”—are all told here with wrenching honesty and agile wit.


I read this book many years ago, and remember really enjoying it. When I decided (recently) to buckle down and try to finish my A Century of Women project, I started working on a potential book list for my remaining years. When I searched for books written in 1942, this one popped up (along with Five Little Pigs, which is my favorite Christie mystery) – it’s #12 on the Goodreads list of “Most Popular Books Published in 1942.”

It was even better the second time because Beryl Markham was an incredibly interesting woman, and a magnificent writer.

So there are many Africas. There are as many Africas as there are books about Africa — and as many books about it as you could read in a leisurely lifetime.

Markham was born in England as Beryl Clutterbuck – I don’t actually know how she became Markham, probably she married – this memoir doesn’t talk at all about husbands (although there were three of them), and it is clear that she has three great loves: Africa, horses and flight. Men don’t seem to figure much in her emotional life, except as companions, friends, and equals. Women figure even less. While this makes the memoir, possibly, less complete, it really feels to me like those are things that she didn’t feel mattered enough to include here. She wanted to write about adventure, she wanted to write about Africa, and she wanted to write about flying. Who she slept with was orders of magnitude less interesting to her, and ultimately, to me as well.

Markham was raised in Kenya, on a farm where she lived with her father after her mother died. She lived one of those lives that is filled with adventure – she feels bigger than life. After her father lost the farm in Njoro, she is forced to leave it and goes to Nairobi to train racehorses.

I have learned that if you must leave a place that you have lived in and loved and where all your yesterdays are buried deep — leave it any way except a slow way, leave it the fastest way you can. Never turn back and never believe that an hour you remember is a better hour because it is dead. Passed years seem safe ones, vanquished ones, while the future lives in a cloud, formidable from a distance. The cloud clears as you enter it. I have learned this, but like everyone, I learned it late. I left the farm at Njoro almost the slowest way, and I never saw it again.

She gets some success as a trainer, but ultimately abandons horses for flight.

Three hundred and fifty miles can be no distance in a plane, or it can be from where you are to the end of the earth. It depends on so many things. If it is night, it depends on the depth of the darkness and the height of the clouds, the speed of the wind, the stars, the fullness of the moon. It depends on you, if you fly alone — not only on your ability to steer your course or to keep your altitude, but upon the things that live in your mind while you swing suspended between the earth and the silent sky. Some of those things take root and are with you long after the flight itself is a memory, but, if your course was over any part of Africa, even the memory will remain strong.

I haven’t read Paula McLain’s historical fiction treatment of her life, Circling the Sun, which has a lovely cover, but doesn’t really appeal to me. The Mary Lovell biography, Straight on Till Morning, on the other hand, does appeal to me and I have put a library hold on it.

I’ll close with Hemingway’s words about the memoir:

“Did you read Beryl Markham’s book, West with the Night? …She has written so well, and marvelously well, that I was completely ashamed of myself as a writer. I felt that I was simply a carpenter with words, picking up whatever was furnished on the job and nailing them together and sometimes making an okay pig pen. But this girl, who is to my knowledge very unpleasant and we might even say a high-grade bitch, can write rings around all of us who consider ourselves as writers … it really is a bloody wonderful book.”

I find myself agreeing with him here. It really is a bloody wonderful book.

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