5 brilliant stars. Beryl Markham’s West with the Night is a gem of a memoir, engrossing and beautifully written. Born in England and raised in Kenya, she was a bush pilot in Africa in the 1930s. Her memoir follows her life through her 1936 attempt to fly solo across the Atlantic, as she grows up on her father’s farm, becomes a horse trainer, learns to fly, and embarks on her career as a pilot.
Each chapter is its own capsule tale. Topics range from her father’s farm to the lion that attacked her to discussions of the African landscape to her flying adventures. While they make for great reading individually, they gain power from the commonality. Markham is a very pleasant narrator, focusing more on the world around her than herself. She is able to take pride in her accomplishments without relating any sense of ego; the accomplishment was sufficient without needing praise.
Her personality comes through as lively, inquisitive, and adventurous. “Lived life to the fullest” is such a cliche, yet she did exactly that. Her confidence is born of hard work and practice–she earned the rich life she led!
The prose itself is a delight to read, lyrical and evocative:
“You can always rediscover an old path and wander over it, but the best you can do then is to say, ‘Ah, yes, I know this turning!’ — or remind yourself that, while you remember that unforgettable valley, the valley no longer remembers you.”
“Still, I look at my yesterdays for months past, and find them as good a lot of yesterdays as anybody might want. I sit there in the firelight and see them all.”
“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.”
“Why am I gazing at this campfire like a lost soul seeking a hope when all that I love is at my wingtips? Because I am curious. Because I am incorrigibly, now, a wanderer.”
A few things will jar modern sensibilities, notably the colonialism and its associated condescension and bigotry, and the casual hunting of elephants. As products of the time, they did not detract from the book for me; I found the fact that these thing stuck out to be a good thing–hopefully we’ve made a bit of progress.
West with the Night is moving, inspiring, witty, worldly, and lovely–one of those books that I was sad to turn the last page and will look forward to reading again. Beryl Markham was an incredible woman, and this perfectly-written memoir does her justice, as well as the continent, people, and things she loved.