The Good Girl
Charles Taylor is, of course, a real Liberian ex-warlord and ex-president as well as a fictional character, and much of the book's power comes from Banks's telling of the buildup to his murderous rule. As a metaphor for America's involvement in Africa, the self-absorbed Hannah works well. Like the New England abolitionists who created Liberia to get rid of the freed slaves who were beginning to congregate in Northern American cities, Hannah frequently supposes that her intentions are altruistic, when in fact she's only trying to exorcise demons of her own. Like America, most of what she does in Africa is designed not so much to accomplish anything as to impress a domestic audience--in her case, her parents. Like America, she enjoys the benefits of the very same Liberian corruption that she complacently condemns. And like America, when the going gets tough, she walks away from the disasters she helps create. As she concludes at the end, "In the new history of America, mine was merely the story of an American darling, and had been from the beginning."
Unfortunately, Hannah is more believable as a metaphor for America than as a living, breathing American woman. That's not just because she's unlikable, although she is very unlikable indeed. To my mind, it's because there's something essentially false about the way that Banks presents her, so that somehow none of her relationships ring true. In the famous story by Chekhov from which the title is taken, a provincial Russian woman takes on one identity after another according to the men in her life. The constant, however, is a need for love and companionship so deep that the woman is willing to cast off every other aspect of personality in pursuit of it. Hannah, too, is a shape-changer, but the conflict with her parents that we are given as a motive hardly seems sufficient to account for her gyrations. A Brandeis graduate so fired by anger over racial injustice that she drops out of Harvard Medical School to join the Weather Underground, she suddenly loses all interest in politics after moving to Africa--a continent whose obscene unfairness is guaranteed to jolt the most politically inert. Instead, she quickly settles into Liberia's faux-Southern plantation society as the bourgeois wife of a deacon of the United Methodist Church. Something is wrong with this picture.
Love might be an explanation, but, as she repeatedly tells us, Hannah is incapable of love. Like her absurdly clichéd mother and father, she is said to be the product of generations of frozen, upper-class parenting. She describes her lovemaking with Woodrow as "chilled, methodical, obligatory and, even when slow and drawn out, brutal." Nevertheless this alleged feminist and socialist would rather submit to nightly rape than admit to her parents that she made a mistake. Nor can she feel much for her children. Looking deep into her sons' eyes, she sees only her own reflection, and even when she goes back to Liberia, she admits that she is more drawn by her missing chimps than by her sons. "I was not a natural mother," she says, and for once we believe her. Her impulse to political action revives when she's unexpectedly exiled from this happy home to the United States, resulting in her sudden decision to spring Taylor from prison. But since she's never before expressed the slightest interest in Liberian politics, and Taylor makes no serious effort to persuade her that he's up to anything except gaining power for himself, we don't really understand why.
Liberia and Liberians, so vivid and full of mystery and surprise in real life, are a curiously pallid lot here. The funhouse aspect of the country that instantly strikes most American visitors is absent, as are the constant and grinding demands for money that are so much a part of everyday Liberian life. Though Banks gets many things right, lots of little details, like his rendition of Liberia's colorful mock-Southern English, seem artificial and forced.
I was so puzzled and disappointed by the emptiness at what should be the heart of the book that I did a bit of checking. Apparently while Banks has traveled extensively in West Africa, he was never able to visit Liberia. That's a real shame, because he's the kind of rare genius who might have been able to begin to comprehend the reality behind its surreal facade.