Russell Banks brings to life in The Darling another political-historical narrative of great scope and range. As in Continental Drift and Rule of the Bone, racial issues are explored; as in Cloudsplitter, idealism runs off the rails. Banks always makes it work because he keeps it real.
The "darling" of the story is Dawn Carrington, ne้ Hannah Musgrave, a political radical and member of the Weather Underground forced to flee America to avoid arrest. At the time of the novel, she is 59, living on her working farm in upstate New York with four younger women, recalling her life in Liberia and her recent return to that country to look for her sons. "Mainly, we return to a place in order to learn why we left," she says. For Hannah, the decision was harrowing. She abandoned her sons during a bloody civil war, after the death of her husband, Woodrow Sundiata, a black African Cabinet Minister in President Samuel Doe's government, who is beheaded in front of her and her three boys. Banks explores mercilessly the corruption, greed, sloth, cynicism, and violence running through the Liberian leaders from Tolbert to Doe to Charles Taylor, weaving the real story of the horrors of West Africa with the fictional narrative of Hannah and Woodrow. He can take history off the page, bringing to life the times, people and events he recounts.
Hannah was born a child of privilege and chafed against it from her youth: "...it was an old impulse ... this desire to separate myself in the dance of life from the people who had brought me and become one instead with the people excluded from the dance..." Her father is a famous pediatrician, her mother a shadow figure maintaining a predictably correct suburban household. Both parents are liberal, but Hannah outstrips their political stance early on. They are estranged for many years because of her flight, but the separation is really much deeper than distance or politics.
She becomes a wife and mother, and is bored and unfulfilled by the role. She turns to creating a sanctuary for chimpanzees and finds her real purpose. "An old pattern. It's how since childhood I have made my daily life worth living, by turning tedium and despair into a cause." She names each chimp, calls them her "dreamers," and cares for them while others care for her children. Self-knowledge is not high on a list of her personal attributes. Although she characterizes herself as "a darling," there is little evidence to support her claim: distant father, cold mother, controlling husband. She finally sees herself in a true light: "Here it all was again: the names and dates, the tired facts of my biography up to then, the description of my few skills and talents. It was the CV of a small-time, would-be domestic terrorist. Sad. Pathetic." Hannah Musgrave is a visitor in her own life, never really connecting with anyone; more a dreamer than a darling.
Russell Banks has, once again in The Darling, shown himself to be one of the finest novelists writing today. He has written very convincingly, in a woman's voice, a story of youthful idealism destroyed by the real world, of a woman who connected more completely with chimps than with humans, and who says, "once it was clear to me that I would have to abandon my husband and children and return alone to the United States, once I saw that I would be alone, safe from prosecution--I realized, gradually at first and then in a rush, that it was exactly what I had wanted all along& I was once again seizing an opportunity to abandon one life for another." Another reinvention for Hannah. --Valerie Ryan [via]