“Liberia is a permanently haunted land filled with vengeful ghosts, and I had committed many sins there.” So ends Hannah Musgrave’s tale, chronicling her journey from a ’60s radical dedicated to establishing an egalitarian, utopian society, to a complacent expatriate wife of a Liberian diplomat, to a disillusioned, aging woman returned to her farm in upstate New York.
Over the course of the approximately thirty years during which the novel takes place, Hannah rebels against her status as the overprivileged, only child of upper middle class do-gooders, flees the United States, and stumbles into Africa “like water following gravity.” For several years she embraces a comfortable life as the wife of Liberian Woodrow Sundiata, a low-level member of President William Tolbert’s administration. But then a series of violent and jarring events destroys every last vestige of that life, leaving Hannah “a husk” of what she had once been, “with secrets untold… one whose life’s meaning is shaped by her memories and not by her ambitions or desires.”
Told in a series of flashbacks that illumine Hannah’s growing social consciousness and unrest, most of her tale takes place during the fourteen years she lived in Liberia, where, upon arrival, she feels a freedom from anger that she has not felt for a long time: “That old, constant, edgy watchfulness, an irritated grasping after righteousness that I could never really trust anyhow–I felt none of it there.” She settles into domesticity, raising three sons with Woodrow, and begins caring for a small population of chimpanzees, an animal increasingly at risk for exploitation by pharmaceutical companies, bounty hunters, and the natives who prize the “bush meat.”
The chimps initially appear to be a tangential element of the novel. But not only are they introduced already in the first paragraph, Hannah soon tells the reader that they are central to her story. She calls them dreamers because “from the quality of their gazes and the intensity of their attention, I thought it was in their nature to dream.” She ascribes to them a higher level of consciousness even while recognizing that–unlike humans–they are mute. But therein lies also a similarity because, as Hannah notes, “when we dream… we, too, are mute.” And in some ways, Hannah’s entire journey was a dream: a dream for a better way to live, a better way for the world to work. But in the end, Hannah is as mute–and as powerless–as the chimps. She can no more save them than she can her family; she can no more effect change in the milieu of American life in the ’60s than she can change the inexorable tide of violence that besets Liberia.
Language of justice, rescue, and redemption suffuse this novel; and yet, it is all for nought. Hannah’s three children, Dillon, Paulie, and Willy, grow up only to earn the names of Worse-than-Death, Fly, and Demonology–titles derived from the murderous chaos that envelops Liberia beginning in the late 1980s. At the close of the novel, Hannah meets up with some missionaries who “asked me if I was a Christian, had I been saved, and I said no, which seemed not so much to disappoint as to surprise them.” Later, Hannah relates this encounter to an acquaintance “who like me is not a Christian and has not been saved but, unlike me, probably doesn’t need it.”
Hannah’s final judgment on her life– and on the state of the world–comes at the end of the novel on the ominous date of September 10, 2001, when “one dark era was about to end and another, darker era to begin.” She returns from Africa to the United States, “a nation whose entire history was being rapidly rewritten.” And she concludes her story by noting that “in the months that followed, I saw that the story of my life could have no significance in the larger world.”
Such a bleak and dismal outlook is not unusual in Russell Banks’ fiction. In this novel, however, given his subject matter, he had no other option. Whereas his other works have been woven from the fabric of blue collar American life, The Darling adheres closely to the historic events of modern-day Liberia. When Hannah first arrives in 1975, Liberia is ruled by President William Tolbert, and although the capitol of Monrovia resembles “a 1940s sleepy Southern county seat,” its days of peace are numbered. Hannah notes that Tolbert, “and his predecessor, the seventerm president Tubman, both men much admired in Washington, had peddled their beautiful country to foreign investors like entertaining and gracious pimps.” Such a damning assessment bodes ill for the country, and, indeed, four years later, in 1979, the edifice crumbles when Tolbert announced a tax on rice–the country’s main staple–leading to riots.
One year later Tolbert was overthrown in a coup, and thirteen members of his cabinet were strapped to telephone poles on the beach and butchered. The country then fell under the rule of Samuel Doe. As has been the case in so many African countries, so too in Liberia: one corrupt leader was replaced by one equally corrupt, who surpassed his predecessors only in brutality–approximately 150,000 Liberians were rumored to have been killed between 1989 and 1997. Finally, in that year, Charles Taylor was elected president, ostensibly because Liberians wanted to halt the wholesale murder he had exacted upon the country.
Obviously such an historical narrative cannot lend itself to a happy novel. Yet Banks’ insight into the human soul, and his profound gift for crafting language that can haunt with its beauty and complexity, makes the reading of this novel a deeply meaningful experience. The simple picture of a woman driving her truck down a country road in the pre-dawn hours is masterfully rendered as “headlights bobbing like heavy fruit on a tree as her beat-up Jimmie pickup passed along the ruts”–here is a phrase so artful that I read it several times.
Banks’ use of a first-person narrative female voice is gutsy. Even at the hands of a skilled novelist, such a gender switch can be difficult. Yet, Banks’ personification of Hannah Musgrave is impressive and, ultimately, believable. Hannah’s conflicted feelings about marriage and motherhood are equally credulous. After giving birth to her first son, she remarks, “I couldn’t…keep from seeing my baby as an alien, a member of a different, non-human species…a person separate from me and yet a part of me, seen, known, honored, and protected; and every time, my gaze came bouncing back, as if reflected off a hard, shiny, opaque surface.” Despite the sense of separateness Hannah feels, she is shocked and numbed by a villager’s brutal account of the last time her sons were seen. Banks’ understated portrayal of how this news affects Hannah is simply masterful. Avoiding the use of dramatic language that would only cheapen the moment, Banks describes how Hannah backs away from the villager, her “sneakers crunching against [the] broken window glass” that litters the country.
The novels of Russell Banks may never qualify as the kind of light reading that seems to capture so much of the American public these days. But the heft of these books, and their unstinting engagement with the jagged edges of real life, make them invaluable for those who seek to work in and understand the world around us.