“[M]erely the story of an American darling,” Banks’ 2004 novel The Darling (Harper Perennial, 393 pages) ends on September 10, 2001, one day before “a new history” in America begins. The words “merely” and “darling” are strongly ironic, suggesting the “new history,” beginning on the next day, will be even more ominous and horrible than the one recounted by Hannah Musgrave, the novel’s protagonist. She is also known as Dawn Carrington, her adopted pseudonym due to youthful foolishness in abetting the Weathermen revolutionary group in America during the late 1960’s into the 1970’s. Hannah is essentially still on the run, although she will manage to marry a Liberian minister close to President Samuel Doe, plus later be exploited by the CIA in arranging the escape from prison of Charles Taylor. She has been a self-necessitating fugitive, obliging herself with a life of running and hiding, and unaware of herself as also a political tool easily exploited.
The story of Hannah Musgrave spans her life from childhood to elder adult about sixty, and is related through first-person narration. She progresses from a somewhat cold child of well-to-do parents, through violent activism, to sojourns in Africa, including her marriage to Woodrow Sundiata in the interior ministry, and the birth of three sons. We begin with Hannah at her farm near the Adirondack Mountains, founded by money inherited from her parents, and seek backwards into her life from there. She has been home in America following the murder of her Liberian husband and the disappearance of her sons. But she will return to seek her beloved chimps and information, possibly, about her sons. In the course of this return we move backwards into her story and forward to its conclusion.
And “we” are the readers that Hannah frequently refers to in the confidential manner of 19th century fiction. The novel’s style is understated, confidential, conversational, reminding of Dolores’ voice in Banks’ The Sweet Hereafter (1991). “It may seem strange to you,” Hannah tells us (referring to readers with this “you”), but something about prisons, jails, cages comforts me” (291). In context with her absorption with the chimps in this story, unfortunates captured for experimentation by American pharmaceutical companies, no, it doesn’t seem strange that jails and prisons comfort Hannah. She is after all more comfortable with the chimps than people generally, and we are cautioned that her empathy may border on pathological narcissism. Inconsistent between revolutionary and conventional wife and lab manager, Hannah appears most happy when confined.
However, whatever Hannah’s peculiarities—and these include some implausibilities in character development—the focus of this novel is most importantly on Hannah as witness to what happens. That is, she is a minor player witnessing horrific events. As a violent revolutionary for the Weathermen she did very little, and never with intent to injure. In Africa she so turned against her past she became its reversal, too much like her mother, and servant to a black husband. Her marriage becomes remote, including relations with her children, and she rescues herself in rescuing badly treated chimps. Meanwhile, as a kind of odd white bystander, she becomes part of and witness to hideous exploitation and internal chaos. The sad, human-like chimps in this story suggest the helpless, the weak and poor, the exploited of Liberia generally, and of Africa, of the world.
Almost immediately the novel foreshadows an emphasis frequently found in Russell Banks’ novels—the savage inner self threatening to take hold in mysterious wildness, as though aberrant nature is always near the surface seeking release. Hannah has been dreaming of Africa, and at this moment of understanding that she needs to return, her dogs behave strangely, as if sniffing into the core of her story and what it will reveal. As usual in the morning Hannah has released the dogs from the house and notices something unusual:
But this morning they looked weirdly different to me, as if during the night one of us, they or I, had changed allegiances. They looked like ghost dogs, moving swiftly across the side yard in the gray pre-dawn light, disappearing into shadows cast by the house and oak trees, darting low to the ground into the garage, then reappearing and moving on. Today they worked for no one but themselves; that’s how I saw them. Their gait was halfway between a trot and a run—fast, effortless, smooth, and silent, their ears cocked forward, plumed tails straight back—and they seemed more like small wolves than carefully trained and utterly domesticated herding animals (5).
The suggestion of independent wildness and rebellion in her dogs here richly unfolds in the subsequent text, not merely toward Hannah herself—emotional child pretending no emotion, would-be violent revolutionary, political fugitive, and underground operative plotting the release of the dangerous Charles Taylor—but onward toward the violence of Liberia consumed in civil war, the brutal beheading of her husband, and the feral state of her sons, those bloodthirsty child terrorists who, before they disappeared, had called themselves Worse-than-Death, Fly, and Demonology.
This dark vision of humanity aberrant toward wildness and savagery, the nature of the contemporary world, as though drawn backwards in history toward the barbaric, the primeval, is powerfully stated in Russell Banks’ The Darling, just as it was in his Cloudsplitter (1998). And this vision, in my view, makes these works powerful indictments of human betrayal. I mean by this word betrayal not a narrow, political sense, as with a representative of one party against another, but betrayal of humanity. And again in betrayal of humanity not simply of decency, but of civilitas itself—the promise of an ordered, civil world instead of savagery in the jungle.
Protagonist Hannah Musgrave, hiding herself as Dawn Carrington, is by no means a simple figure now in her sixties reminiscing on an unusual life, and how she was unfortunately caught up in the peculiar malevolence of local African ambition conspiring with corporate American exploitation, which led inevitably to blowback and resistance from the natives. Her story as “an American darling” reveals the flimsy texture of illusion and stupidity, of misapprehension and shallowness, and of miscalculation on the nature of the human psyche. Against the coming new history of America, Banks’ ending tells us that Hannah’s story has been as fleet as a shadow, as insubstantial. Yet in reading her story, and receiving her attention to us, we learn about ourselves and may thus be warned—or better prepared.
-Peter Bollington, author of Mechanic of Fortune 2012