Russell Banks is a major American novelist, a maestro of loss. Yet his name, easily confused with writers like Russell Baker or Iain Banks, somehow evades instant recognition. It isn’t until you mention Cloudsplitter, Banks’s 1998 bestseller inspired by abolitionist John Brown, or the great film versions of The Sweet Hereafter and Affliction, that his name clicks into place as an author drawn to the thwarted arc of mundane lives.
Like Cloudsplitter, Banks’s latest novel skitters across the surface of history, using real events and people to ground his fictional creations. Hannah Musgrave, narrator of The Darling, is the daughter of a celebrated pediatrician and anti-war protester obviously modeled on Dr. Benjamin Spock. Rebelling against her father’s well-meaning but limp liberal politics, Hannah becomes a radical activist and plays a peripheral role in the Weather Underground. Her subversive activities nevertheless get her a plum spot on the government’s wanted list, and in the 1970s she flees to Africa (as did several real radicals of the era), where she settles down into bourgeois family life with a minor government official. Much as she tries to hide from the world, politics eventually finds Hannah, and she and her African family get dragged into Liberia’s horrific civil war.
The Darling reads like a confession—not a headlong, gushing confession but a hesitant and circuitous one that treats us with kid gloves, as if gently preparing us to witness a beheading. Hannah, now 59 and running an organic farm in the Adirondacks, sifts through her ruined life. She declares that at a certain point we all stop reaching for the future and begin to contract: “It’s as if the whole purpose of an organism’s life—of my life, anyhow—were merely for it to reach the farthest extension of its potential with the sole purpose of returning to its single-cell start. As if one’s fate were to drop back into the river of life and dissolve there like a salt.”
As she leads us through her mental maze, Hannah scatters ominous hints about the fate of her three African sons and her friendship with budding Liberian leader Charles Taylor (who in real life is currently on trial for war crimes). Her voice hums with an intimacy and regret that make you want to follow her on this descent into hell. A hell that, in this case, resembles a small Southern town circa the 1940s but is actually Monrovia, the capital of Liberia, a West African country settled in the 19th century by American ex-slaves who in turn formed their own overclass there. In Monrovia Hannah falls into a puzzling romance with Woodrow Sundiata, an unremarkable government minister. Hannah seems unable to explain why an aggressive American radical would give up her causes, marry a bourgeois African bureaucrat she barely knows, and have his babies—except that she was exhausted by the rigor of an ideological life, by the constant need for self-interrogation that kept her on the move and unattached. In Liberia, she allows herself to slacken into a lapsed rebel, nodding out inside the bubble of her gated home.
Eventually, though, Hannah finds a new cause: She opens a sanctuary for abandoned and abused chimpanzees. She calls them her “dreamers,” because she imagines their consciousness as akin to the Aborigine concept of dreamtime—”not drifting or soporifically sliding through life, their attention always askew or elsewhere, like ours, but behaving as if they were free to look at every single thing as if it had never been seen before, as if everything, a leaf, an ant, a human ear, were of terrible and wondrous significance.” Later, when violence washes over Liberia, she leads them to an uninhabited island, not knowing that she herself will be forced to abandon them and flee to the U.S. Hannah laments this desertion of the dreamers, but she rarely dwells on the memory of her three young sons. The boys remain barely sketched stick figures, as does her husband—her family is the dark, hard center of the novel, a clot that Banks never dissolves or resolves. This makes some sense if you look at the narrative from Hannah’s perspective: She is trapped as a spectator in her own life, still in the process of unraveling her own denial. She rummages through her past for an explanation, recalling that as a child she reinvented herself as Scout, a self-sufficient tomboy who froze out her parents and punished her mother for narcissism. Starting with this transformation, Hannah spent her life stripping identities like itchy wool sweaters that have suddenly become too heavy. “It’s why I was able to leave them with such ease and so little regret,” she says of her kids. “Simply, they weren’t as real to me as I was to myself.”
But this inability or unwillingness to bring Hannah’s African family to life feels like a major failure on Banks’s part, in a book otherwise reverberating with ideas and startling prose. Hannah declares herself a husk of a woman, but she is The Darling‘s only full-bodied character, a monstrously magnetic woman striding through a roomful of ghosts.