One of my favorite books is West with the Night by Beryl Markham. It’s a kind of memoir, insofar as it is about her life as a bush pilot in and around Kenya after World War I. But while the author is lambently present in each chapter, it isn’t about her. It’s about flying airplanes, crashing airplanes, horses, the people of Africa, the other people of Africa who had exploited the first people just long enough to get weird about it, uppity customs agents in Italian Ethiopia—all the relentlessly particular details that make a life when someone is too busy living it to think about herself. Markham is present in the work the way a carpenter is present at the table. Even though it is definitely a memoir, I think of West With the Night as a collection of linked short stories, made a little more beautiful by the knowledge that they actually happened to the same woman.1
Besides writing what I consider one of the ten best narrative works of the 20th century,2 she also flew solo from Europe to North America in 1936. She was the first woman ever to do it, although not the first to try. The vents on her fuel tank iced over in the 21st hour, and she crash-landed on Cape Breton Island to walk away with the record. Before that, she was the first licensed female racehorse trainer in Kenya. She was also publicly known to have fucked the queen’s uncle.
Anyway, you should buy West with the Night or check out a copy from your local library. Even though it’s great, it went out of print shortly after it was published. We’re lucky to have it today. To read Markham is to reenact her life in a way reminiscent of its signal moments. I imagine her over Canada as she realized her engines had stopped working, thinking “nope” and bringing that hunk of dead metal whistling to the ground. I picture her smirking as she leaves the wreck, miracle tacked onto miracle. She lived her life so willfully. It is our privilege to read her and will her back to life ourselves.