In The Darling, his first novel since 1998's Cloudsplitter, Russell Banks once again wrestles with big questions: war, ideology, evil, poverty, and the seemingly unbridgeable gaps between people of different classes or cultures. The tale of Hannah Musgrave, a member of the Weather Underground who marries a Liberian government official while on the run from American law enforcement, is starkly terrifying. Set against twenty-five years of political struggle and civil war in Liberia, Banks offers brief flashes of light in a perpetually-dark sky.
In purely literary terms, The Darling is not a difficult novel: its language is clear, its structure is straightforward, its characters are well-drawn. In emotional terms, readers may find the book incredibly troubling. Banks does not write 'political novels'-his memorable characters do not exist to score rhetorical points, nor are their hardships evidence that can be marshaled to promote any program or philosophy. Banks does not offer solutions, only detailed renditions of individual lives that obliquely suggest larger sociological concerns.
Musgrave is possibly Banks' first narrator who is both at the center of the action and acutely self-aware; Affliction is narrated not by Wade Whitehouse, the small-town police-chief protagonist, but by his somewhat estranged college-professor brother; Rule of the Bone is narrated by its protagonist, but part of the joy in that novel is untangling those things that are literally true from those that are true only within Bone's mind.
Hannah's discovery that other people may escape our comprehension, despite our good intentions and our highly-cultivated self-awareness, is the emotional core of the story. Once a political radical accustomed to taking moral inventory of herself, she is unable to give up the habit despite her radically changed circumstances:
That's what marriage and motherhood had given me: the upshot of the fucking, the pregnancy, the birthing of my sons and their infancy was that I wasn't more of a woman or less; I was a different woman. You probably think of me as strong and independent, and I believe that I am-now. I was strong and independent when I was young, too, before I came to Africa. But in the years between? No. Emphatically no. I was different then.
My weakness and dependence on Woodrow and other men-and in time I'll tell you about them, too-caused terrible pain and harm to many people. To my sons, especially. Who was that terrible woman, and how do I deal with her now? (p. 175)
The tragedy of The Darling is that, as Hannah discovers, her awareness and sensitivity don't insulate her or her family from the political turmoil that engulfs Liberia-in fact, they estrange her from them. The cultural gap between even the educated classes in Liberia and in the United States may be, for her, too broad to be bridged; even the gap between Hannah and her employees at her Adirondack farm may be too wide to cross.
The Darling is bleaker than many of Banks' other novels, in which comprehension is often the only consolation. While Hannah understands her own plight, she cannot understand the people she loves, or professes to love; without understanding, compassion cannot take root in the rocky soil of her soul. In the case of her parents, distance and dispassion are fueled by her intellectual understanding of their shortcomings; Hannah can care for her mother's needs, but can hardly care for her mother. Only the chimpanzees, for whom Hannah builds a shelter in Liberia, receive Hannah's unconditional affection.
If the novel has a shortcoming, it is that Hannah Musgrave sounds an awful lot like Banks' other intellectual characters, who often serve as semi-omniscient narrators; she differs from them in history but not in temperament, and her being a woman seems to make little difference. Those characters, however, have usually populated the edges of Mr. Banks' novels, and it is nice to see one at the center, to see the limitations of that intellect become the focus.