Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces West with the Night Analysis - Essay

Beryl Clutterbuck

Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces West with the Night Analysis

Although Markham modestly dismisses West with the Night as a “remembrance” or a “revisitation,” such an evaluation diminishes her skill as a writer. The book is the product of an accomplished, imaginative writer who was part poet and part storyteller. Much of the power of West with the Night derives from Markham’s ability to establish a strong sense of place. Whether she is describing a racetrack, the interior of an airplane at five thousand feet, or Lake Nakuru, pink with flamingos, her rich, vivid imagery captures the mood and feel of Africa. She can evoke the dreamy spell of “leopard nights” and “lion nights” on the Kenya farm. She can also repulse her readers with the visceral details of life in a Murani village, where goat urine produces a “pungent stench,” where brown-eyed cattle have “friendly nostrils” and “slobbery mouths that covered our legs with sticky fluid,” and where the village chief, after drinking a gourd of blood and curdled milk “let his belch roll upward from his belly and resound against the morning silence.”

Markham’s prose is highly metaphorical. Personification and simile are instrumental in conveying the grandiose beauty of the African landscape. As she looks at the world from the campfire, she writes:In a sense it was formless. When the low stars shone over it and the moon clothed it in silver fog, it was the way the firmament must have been when the waters had gone and the night of the Fifth Day had fallen on creatures still bewildered by the wonder of their being.

West with the Night is also distinctive because of Markham’s flair for narrative. Many episodes in the book assume the form and impact of short stories. Dialogue is common, especially as a device for revealing character. In addition, when the outcome of an event is in doubt Markham paces the action for optimum suspense. For example, when describing a confrontation with an angry bull elephant, she intensifies the moment of climax by extending it; she describes the elephant’s scream, the red and black interior of its mouth, and Bror Blixen’s maddening refusal to shoot. The result is a chilling and gripping adventure story, intensified because Markham actually experienced it.

Occasionally, Markham distorts the facts if it serves her literary purposes to do so. In one of the most exciting episodes in the book, Wild Child, an ailing filly, is pitted against Wrack, a stronger horse owned by a rival stable. Tension builds as Markham, shifting into the present tense, describes the preparation, the grandstand crush, and finally the race itself, which she captures in slow motion. It is a very effective passage that builds to an exhilarating finish when Wild Child wins. In reality, however, the race as described by Markham never occurred. Wild Child raced Wrack several times. This particular was merely a composite of many races and thus serves as yet another example of Markham’s creative power.

Markham’s strong narrative impulse was undoubtedly shaped by the stories she heard during her youth. She was especially impressed by her father’s stories of the Masai, Kikuyu, and Nandi wars. She was also exposed to the African oral tradition in...

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