In the past few decades, Russell Banks has established himself as one of America’s most important living writers, one of a handful with the daring and the talent to plumb our history and the human heart for their deepest meanings. For him, the defining story of our epoch is the great clash between Europe and Africa that gave birth to the African diaspora and with it, the New World, in all its tragic majesty and portent for good and evil. It’s a story he has explored from many different angles, beginning in 1980 with The Book of Jamaica, the tale of a white professor confronting the reality of race in the Caribbean. Since then, he has given us Continental Drift (1985), a visionary epic about the catastrophic collision between the lives of a working-class New Englander and a Haitian immigrant, both in search of their own American Dream; Rule of the Bone (1995), the story of a teenage drifter who flees America for Jamaica; and Cloudsplitter (1998), an examination of the fiery New England abolitionist John Brown and the tangled roots of political violence. In his latest book, The Darling, which he has said grew out of his research for Cloudsplitter, he takes up the same themes again, this time in the tale of an upper-class American woman who washes up in Liberia, the West African state settled in the nineteenth century by American ex-slaves, while trying to escape her radical past as a member of the Weather Underground in the 1960s.
When we first meet Hannah Musgrave, the book’s heroine and narrator, she’s a gray-haired, middle-aged organic farmer living in the Adirondacks. We soon learn that she has had another life as a wife and mother in Liberia, and that she’s decided to go back there to find out what happened to the three sons and the chimpanzees she abandoned ten years earlier to civil war. Hannah herself is the only child of a famous New England pediatrician (reminiscent in some respects of Dr. Benjamin Spock) who expected her to embody the self-denying ethos of his family’s Puritan forebears, not to mention the high-achieving results of his own liberal prescriptions for child-rearing. During the Vietnam era, he and her mother looked on with fond admiration even as she pursued an increasingly radical path that landed her on the FBI’s Most Wanted list. They saw her as a modern incarnation of the abolitionists, who they believe struck down the evil of slavery and, in so doing, saved the Republic. In fact, as Hannah herself recognizes, she is a monster of selfishness who uses a series of largely illusory crusades as a very American excuse for self-regard.
Bored and unhappy as a young woman trying to live up to her parents’ heroic expectations (while at the same time excoriating what she sees as their complacent liberalism), she seizes an opportunity to escape underground life in New Bedford, Massachusetts, by running away to Ghana with a fellow radical. Once there, she drifts on to the fetid and decaying Liberia of the 1970s, where she meets and marries Woodrow Sundiata, the country’s assistant minister of public health. She bears Woodrow three sons before discovering her true calling as a caretaker for the neglected and abandoned chimpanzees that Liberians consider “bush meat.” At the same time, she and Woodrow are drawn into an increasingly dangerous alliance with Charles Taylor, a cunning and ambitious politician whose plans to take over Liberia’s government are secretly backed by the CIA.
What Hannah really wants seems to be a quiet life alone with her animal friends, but, driven by the belief her parents have instilled in her that it is her duty and destiny to change the world, she can’t act on her desires until it is too late. Instead, she meddles in matters she doesn’t begin to understand, helping to plunge not just her family but the whole of Liberia into a hellish war. Only after her husband has been slaughtered in front of her eyes and her sons turned into cannibals and child soldiers is she willing to face the consequences of her actions and, even then, only obliquely and from the safety of her organic haven–a haven denied to the hapless Liberian victims of her psychodramas.
This, then, is yet another dark fable of American pseudo-innocence lost, and Banks is such a master storyteller, and has thought so deeply about the issues of race and power at hand, that there is much to savor here. As always, his portraits of rural and working-class New England life are unsurpassed, as are his depictions of the way the personal and the political push and pull against each other to shape human character. Take, for example, the description he gives early in the book of Hannah decapitating the free-range chickens she raises on her Adirondacks farm. She could delegate the task to an employee, but, being Hannah, she’s too proud for that. Wrenching as it is to kill, she says, “it feels somehow just and necessary that I do it myself.” Besides, she has a political rationale that makes it all right: “It’s me and Anthea and the girls against Tyson’s and Frank Perdue and the industrialization of the food chain, and for us it justifies the carnage and the stress and high feelings that the bimonthly killing arouses in us…. We’re doing it, by God, for a reason. It’s political.”
This is an appropriately ominous introduction to the other kinds of killing Hannah has been willing to sanction so long as it’s done for an appropriately political reason. In Liberia she shies away from eating “bush meat” at the village home of her future husband’s family, feeling that chimpanzees are too close to humans to be consumed. But when the chance comes for her to free the diabolical Charles Taylor from prison, she doesn’t hesitate to set him off to start a war she knows will consume thousands of human Liberians. Although a sexual attraction to Taylor may be her deepest motive for doing it, she tells herself that his will be a war of liberation against Samuel Doe, the dictator who has banished her back to the United States.
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.