West with the Night by Beryl Markham
3 words: lyrical, understated, adventurous
You know that thing when you re-read a book and it’s even better than you’d remembered? That happened with West with the Night.
I kept thinking: my high school self was reading some intensely good writing.
The writing, people. The writing.
Markham (or whoever wrote it — there’s a juicy authorship controversy) had some serious talent as an author. There are sentences like this:
“I never knew what their digging got them, if it got them anything, because, when I set my small biplane down on the narrow runway they had hacked out of the bush, it was night and there were fires of oil-soaked rags burning in bent chunks of tin to guide my landing.” (p. 4)
I mean, that’s some gorgeous writing, and that’s some serious romance.
And this paragraph that I remembered from my reading of the book in my teens*:
“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.” (p. 131)
Not only is the writing lush, but the storytelling is incredible and nuanced and delightfully incomplete. (Memoir, you’re a book discussion’s best friend.)
Markham is attacked by a lion and nearly attacked by an elephant, she trains derby-winning horses from her teen years on, and she flew an open cockpit biplane in Africa. And she had multiple affairs (not alluded to in this book, but legendary).
It was not a typical life.
There’s just something enticing about stories of growing up in Africa. This book evoked Alexandra Fuller’s Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight and William Kamkwamba’s The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind.
Except Markham’s book contained some allusions to race that made me frankly uncomfortable. We can see these comments as typical of the time the book was written (1942), but that doesn’t mean a modern reader won’t squirm a bit. And that’s yet another topic of discussion: How do the treatments of race and colonialism affect our reading of the book?
Well worth reading—for the writing, the stories, the discussibility.
If your book club is reading this book, here are some discussion questions and topics:
- Does it matter whether or not Beryl Markham wrote the book herself?
- For background, read Michiko Kakutani’s New York Times article “Books of the Times; A Ghost Writers Haunts a Famous Pilot’s Ghost” (or Google West with the Night authorship to find some articles).
Reliability of narrator
How honest do you think Markham is? How reliable is she, as a narrator?
For background, read Paula McLain’s Town and Country article “An Insanely Glamorous Love Triangle,” in which McLain states, “Her talent was for secrecy, rather than discretion…”
Did Markham’s gender limit her in any way?
Markham shows no interest in women’s issues and does not seek to mentor other women. Can we consider her a feminist icon? Or is that expectation an unfair burden?
- In what ways does this book address issues of colonialism in Africa?
- Were there moments in the book where characters’ behavior and expressions of racial inequalities made you feel uncomfortable?
When and how does Markham show a strong connection with another person?
- Markham doesn’t mention her mother, brother, husbands, or son in her book. Why? (And would we ask this question if she were a man?)
Markham details several dramatic episodes that she experienced, but she conveys these stories without great emotion. Why do you think she is so detached?
- If you think Markham had a detached, unemotional way of dealing with the world, how did that help and hurt her?
Structure and style
- This memoir is not arranged in strict chronological order. Why did you think Markham decided to tell her story in this way?
- Do you like the author’s writing style? If so, why does it appeal to you?
- Is West with the Night a good title for this book?
For further reading
- Check out Paula McLain’s Circling the Sun, a great biographical novel about Markham
- Read Out of Africa by Karen Blixen (Isak Dinesen). That love triangle!
Give this book a whirl if you like… memoirs of a woman leading an unconventional life, the Golden Age of aviation, ex-pats in Africa in the early 20th century, reading about free spirits, sympathetic narratives about animals, tales of daring
What’s the book you re-read and found it better than you remembered?
*I might’ve even copied it into my Quotes notebook (such a dork)