Title: West with the Night
Author: Beryl Markham
Genre(s): nonfiction, memoir
Length: 294 pages (varies by edition)
Published: 1942 (first edition)
It’s fairly well-established that I’m a fan of a quality memoir. Ignoring the anomaly that was Why Not Me? (I don’t think it should count), I’ve given many of the ones I’ve read—like Educated, A River in Darkness, and The Glass Castle—four or five stars. When they’re good, they’re very good. But despite having so many memoirs on my TBR list, I only read 2 memoirs in 2019 (or, 1, barring the aforementioned anomaly). I began my 2020 reading year by amending that.
West with the Night had been on my TBR list since last year, but had seemingly become lost amidst the stacks, a hibernating title tucked away on my Goodreads profile. However, one of my friends sent me a copy of it a week ago, I began reading it later that day, and I finished it in less than 24 hours. This memoir loosely follows the life of Beryl Markham, a female pilot who lived and worked in English-colonized Kenya during the 1920s and 1930s, from her childhood on her father’s farm, through years of training race horses, to her eventual transition into piloting and her solo journey across the Atlantic.
More than anything, the prose of this book is what made it so compelling and appealing to me. How to describe it? Markham is unsentimental and doesn’t share many of her feelings in an overt way—to some, that may come across as cold, but she brings attention to important emotions or important details by other, subtle means. She also utilizes an extensive vocabulary, though not to the point of incomprehensibility. The combination of these two elements makes a rich ambiance to each scene and chapter. Here’s an example from page 143:
“The trees that guard the thatched hut where I live stand in disorganized ranks, a regiment at ease, and lay their shadows on the ground like lances carried too long.
They are tall trees shouldering the late sun on its way before its light is done, urging the evening into their circle. Sun shafts pry through the close guard and touch the door of the hut, or the window, or the chimney, but they are as weak as the glow of my hurricane lamp, smug and dowdy in the centre of my cedar table. Night comes early at Molo. In my house it comes earlier still, but the stables are unshaded and I can see them from where I sit. I can see the safely closed doors, a stretch of the paddock fence, a tired syce trudging to his dinner. The workday is finished, dead as the calendar page that bore its number. But the year is thick with other pages, full with other work.”
These descriptions are complex, but not heavy-handed; they conjure up specific and vivid images without having to describe every single detail; there are understated feelings present that don’t need to be pointed at specifically in order to sense them. I have no issues with—and often enjoy—writing that has more feeling, emotion, or sentimentality woven into it, but it’s also refreshing to read prose that has little of those things but is still compelling, and I admire the way Markham is able to balance descriptions, sentences, and paragraphs into prose that sings.
Markham is, of course, the central figure of the story, but she rarely delves into her own personal feelings, or prefers to describe them without much pomp or fluff. To put it another way, those who go into reading this book expecting lots of details about her personal life, family, beliefs, or emotions will be disappointed. Her careers paths also take her through many different social circles and, thus, different “side characters” (or their nonfiction, memoir equivalents). But, even so, none of the people in the story have a substantial presence—or when they do, it’s only for a scene or chapter, which is most likely due to the combination of the episodic structure of the chapters and the narration style. Thus, those who prefer stories where the characters are very prominent/consistently present may find this memoir to lack to heart, so to speak. However, I didn’t feel as if the lightness with which Markham touched upon individual lives or feelings left a hole in the narration. West with the Night focuses much more on action and sensory details than on feelings or abstractions, and the richness of the prose adds interest to whatever areas may be lacking in terms of characterization.
As I mentioned, West with the Night focuses mainly on action: the story of Markham being attacked by a lion as a child, the preparation for and the event of a horse race, learning how to pilot a plane, going on a hunting expedition, or making a solo trip across the Atlantic Ocean. However, though the sequence of scenes is logical and coherent, there’s an element of looseness in the scenes that Markham chose to include in the memoir—I would describe it as episodic. Personal life details, such as any mention of her mother or siblings or love life, aren’t touched upon at all; the political or social contexts in which she lives are only lightly touched upon, as well. Markham also takes a lot of time recounting her childhood teen years, and career as a race horse trainer, but less time toward the end of the book explaining the events surrounding her solo flight. In that sense, there is some lack of balance in the plotting (especially if you go in thinking the memoir will only be about flying—there’s a lot about hunting, horses, and farming), but I didn’t find that to be a drawback in terms of pacing or understanding.
Almost all of the events in West with the Night take place in 1920s and 1930s Kenya, which at that time was colonized by England (British East Africa). I haven’t read much about any part of Africa apart from world history courses when I was in school and the book Queen of Katwe, so the unfamiliar setting was intriguing, particularly the ways in which Markham described the geographical, ecological, and biological diversity that existed in the countries where she worked and flew. The fact that this book was written in the 1940s and that the events described were from the two decades before was also intriguing, as the little snippets of information allowed me to glimpse into a contemporary account of the social, economic, and political events of the time. Markham’s world was so much different than the world today! However, because I know so little about Kenya or Africa in general, the lack of broader context (which one can rarely gather from memoirs—it’s their nature) was ever present in my mind; memoirs are great for understanding history in a personal way, but they also have to be weighed against a broader historical meaning—which is to say, it’s important to balance ones view of memoirs to account for potential narrative unreliability, no matter how compelling they are. And, I do wish that Markham would have given some more contextual information. However, the nature of her narrative is one that doesn’t lend toward such a broad scope—the story is about her life, after all.
As far as “traditional” objectionable content goes, West with the Night is pretty mild: there are a few instances of swearing, a few instances of people drinking, and practically non-existent sexual content apart from when Markham and a passenger have to stay in an empty brothel while stopping in Benghazi. Where readers may squirm is the various accounts of animal attacks, potential animal attacks, and hunting expeditions; Markham’s writing style doesn’t sensationalize these instances, nor linger unnecessarily, but they are vivid. Those who are also very sensitive to animal conservation may not like that some of the hunting expeditions deal with scouting for elephants in order to get ivory. Additionally, most modern readers will likely be very aware that the setting includes colonization, and that Markham’s descriptions of Africa and the various people groups (both the African peoples and those, like Indians, who live and work in British East Africa) can veer into racist or simply prejudiced descriptions. That Markham sometimes speaks of Africa as a place full of virtues and beauty, sometimes has such good relationships with African people, and then sometimes speaks of Africa as lacking essential qualities to make it successful or generalizes a whole people group in a negative light is perhaps the strangest part of the memoir, though, historically speaking, it’s both accurate and unsurprising.
West with the Night is a fascinating book. Modern readers will likely be aware of how Markham’s background and experiences provide a limited, even prejudiced, view of Africa and its people, and for some that will be such a blot on the story that they cannot read or enjoy it. I can also see how some would find Markham’s writing style to be boring, full of too many vocabulary words, or structured too loosely and disconnectedly. However, her careers—which are impressive even by today’s standards, and more impressive considering the time in which she lived—and her unsentimental yet poetic prose make this book an easy and enjoyable read. How do we evaluate a book that has so many strengths, yet also some broader, negative implications?
People too often want to diminish such complexity, but it’s possible and necessary to balance both sides, to be able to enjoy beautiful prose or fascinating narratives while also realizing that no writer, no story, is without flaws, and that someone can be right in many regards yet miss what appears to be such an obvious defect or mistake. Otherwise, nobody can read anything beyond what fits into their personal experiences and worldview! History—the world, in fact—would be off-limits. And, that ability to see the world and people as complex makes memoirs such as West with the Night more meaningful and interesting, because it allows multiple layers of thought and evaluation—it requires active thinking as one reads and can, if one lets it, increase understanding of human nature. I love Markham’s writing style, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading about a time and a country that I know so little about; I’m also not idealizing Markham, or ignoring that British East Africa was likely full of a lot of issues that Markham did not touch upon and that I’m unaware of (as I said, my knowledge of that area and era is sparse). Thus, in spite of those qualms, I give West with the Night 5/5 stars.