Some books, like a gripping thriller or a chilling murder mystery, are meant to be chugged with the desperation of a bottle of water in the desert — voraciously devoured and swallowed whole by the reader. Others are more refined and are meant to be sipped, swirled around the tongue, and savored like a glass of rare Madeira. Beryl Markham’s memoir West with the Night is undoubtedly the latter type.
Born in England in 1902, Beryl Markham (nee Clutterbuck) moved to British East Africa, now Kenya, with her father, Charles Clutterbuck, when she was 4. She grew up on his 1,500-acre farm at Njoro where he milled flour and timber and bred thoroughbred racehorses. “He made it out of nothing and out of everything — the things of which all farms are made. He made it out of forest and bush, rocks, new earth, sun, and torrents of warm rain. He made it out of labour and out of patience,” writes Beryl of her father.
She frequently evaded her studies as an adolescent by running off to hunt warthog boars with Masai warriors and her trusty dog, Buller, at times narrowly avoiding lions and other dire calamities. Her closest call with a lion, however, was when she was much younger at a neighboring family’s farm. While her father enjoyed a cup of tea on the terrace with the Elkingtons, she ran off as she always did to explore the vast tracts of land. After she seemed successfully to skirt the lounging pet male lion that the Elkington family had raised from infancy, she found herself drowning in its roar as it attacked her from behind. A loyal servant rescued her and then ran to tell her father that she had been “moderately eaten by the large lion.”
Beryl grew up to be a respected racehorse trainer in her own right before becoming an early aviatrix, flying commercially all over Africa prior to pioneering scouting elephants by plane and then finally attempting a record flight that made her the first pilot to fly solo from England to America. “Flight is but a momentary escape from the eternal custody of the earth,” she writes of that momentous journey.
Her memoir is told with such beautiful expression and fresh, descriptive phrases that I found myself at times reading several times over a particular sentence to absorb its flavor fully. Describing her plane climbing through seemingly endless fog at takeoff, she says, “She found a sky so blue and so still that it seemed the impact of a wing might splinter it, and we slid across a surface of white clouds as if the plane were a sleigh running on fresh-fallen snow.”
Before detailing the account of her childhood lion attack, she says, “I have sometimes thought since of the Elkingtons’ tea-table — round, capacious, and white, standing with sturdy legs against the green vines of the garden, a thousand miles of Africa receding from its edge.”
It is an adventure story from start to finish, beginning with a dual rescue mission flight and bookended with her historic crash landing in a Nova Scotian bog, with the tale of her African life between. It is a non-linear narrative with her deviating, for example, from the account of the rescue mission as she describes flying over a herd of zebras to tell about a baby zebra that once fell in love with her horse out on a ride and, abandoning its mother and herd, came back with them to the barn where it was bottle-fed and treated as a household pet.
West with the Night is well worth its high praise from Ernest Hemingway, who famously wrote of it to Maxwell Perkins, “Written so well, and marvelously well, that I was completely ashamed of myself as a writer … this girl can write rings around all of us who consider ourselves writers … It really is a bloody wonderful book.”