The Darling by Russell Banks

Hannah Musgrove Sundiata, the narrator of Russell Banks’s new novel, The Darling, writes her life’s story from her poultry farm on the banks of the Ausable River in the Adirondacks, but most of the events she describes take place thousands of miles away in Liberia, located on the western coast of northern Africa. “The truth is, most of the time, even now, I don’t want to tell my story. Not to you, not to anyone,” she confesses. “It’s almost as if I’m beyond all stories and have been for years. You want to see me in light, but I’m visible only in darkness… I’m like a white shadow.” That statement reads both as a looming, heavy metaphor about Western presence in Africa and as an overwritten passage devised mainly to be underlined. But Hannah’s observation also underscores a major problem with this lengthy novel — its overinvestment in its premise and setting at the expense of her character, who really is just a shadow.

After ten years raising chickens on the obviously named Shadowbrook Farms, Hannah decides she must revisit Liberia after almost a decade away. “Mainly,” she observes, “we return to a place in order to learn why we left.” That quest for self-knowledge sparks memories of her past, most of which was spent underground: first as the privileged, emotionally cloistered daughter of a well-known child psychologist; then as a student radical during the 1960s; then as a bomb-making fugitive in the Weather Underground; and later as the white American wife of a Liberian bureaucrat.

Banks rushes through the early period of her life, neglecting to depict her childhood, her developing political ideology, or the passionate indignation that motivates her to forsake her family, her home, her identity, and eventually her country. Even when she is in hiding — under the alias Dawn Carrington — Banks does not explore her subterranean claustrophobia or paranoia. Hannah seems aloof in these early passages, as if she is merely observing these political goings-on instead of actively supporting and participating in them. Apparently the 1960s radical movement has become such a given that its ideology is less important than its actions; Banks uses it here as shorthand for a generation and its particular concerns, which may be lost on subsequent generations of readers.

Hannah eventually flees America for Ghana and soon to Liberia, where she begins working in an American-run lab running blood tests on chimpanzees. She begins a courtship with her boss, Woodrow Sundiata, the American-educated Minister of Public Health. After they marry, she delivers three sons: Dillon, Paul, and William. But she takes a much more personal interest in the lab monkeys (which she calls her “dreamers”) than she does with any of her family, eventually establishing a sanctuary in an abandoned prison.

However, her time in Africa is largely defined not by her family or even her chimpanzees, but by the country’s political tumult. Here is where The Darling excels: Banks clearly and dynamically explicates Liberia’s history, notably its exploitation by the United States, which views the small country — approximately the size of Tennessee — as a strategic military base and a “money-changing station.” The American government doesn’t seem concerned that President William Tolbert is hording food, money, and foreign aid, keeping most Liberians in perpetual poverty.

Tolbert is eventually overthrown — and violently so — by a village-born soldier named Samuel Doe, who rules the country in more or less the same brutal manner. Both characters are actual historical figures, as is their eventual successor, Charles Taylor, who plays a more crucial role in The Darling. Playing with real people, especially those who lived so recently, is a dicey proposition for any writer: Even a small gaffe can interrupt a reader’s suspension of disbelief and discredit the entire novel. However, Banks manages to incorporate these men seamlessly into Hannah’s narrative, aligning the events of the novel to match Liberia’s history.

Banks, unfortunately, does not succeed so dynamically in other aspects of The Darling. Most of the novel’s flaws can be traced back to the rushed first section, which leaves Hannah’s later motivations frustratingly underexplained and unclear. Because Banks neglects to fully explain her political ideals, her later devotion to intangibles like justice and truth seem almost arbitrary. As a major character and especially as a narrator, she remains opaque, which undercuts her relationships with other characters. Hannah professes to comprehend her dreamers more intimately than she does even her own sons, but, strangely, she does not interact with them very much. When she does, the few scenes are short and unrevealing. While she maintains she is most fulfilled by her relationships with these animals, Banks is much more concerned with her relationships with people and especially how those bonds deteriorate. What should be the novel’s focus becomes a mere tangent.

Consequently, The Darling reads as if every next page will contain some major revelation to provide the right connections between these characters and elements. It’s an expectation that goes unfulfilled even in the last sentence. The Darling is intended to be a novel of self-deception, but it remains unclear just how much of Hannah’s emotional detachment is intentional. “When you have kept as many secrets as I have for as long as I have,” she explains, “you end up keeping them from yourself as well.” That sort of self-delusion often makes for inspired fiction, but here it bleeds from the pages and leaves the reader feeling similarly misled.