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Book Review: The Darling not quite darling

Russell Banks' attempt to branch off in new directions only sometimes hits its mark

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If Russell Banks intended to prove he is capable of versatility by writing The Darling, now available in paperback, he succeeded. Having traditionally set his works in New England and cast them with male protagonists, composing a novel narrated by an American woman focusing mainly on her years in Africa marks a departure for Banks. It is one he handles well though unfortunately The Darling suffers from other problems.

The novel is narrated by Hannah Musgrave, a 59-year-old former leftist radical and widow of a slain African cabinet minister now living a life of relative tranquility on a farm in upstate New York. Hannah remains haunted by her past, and thus her recollections of it unfold in a jumbled fashion. A one-time member of the Weather Underground, she fled the US to escape a warrant for her arrest and wound up spending most of the next 25 years living in conflict-plagued Liberia. Disordered as her tale might be, Hannah's tone always has a ring of truth to it. She is the novel's most fully-rounded character, alternately cynical and idealistic--occasionally both at the same time. Banks adopts a female voice with remarkable credibility, and only when he fails to give her the requisite expository opportunities does the novel falter.

Sadly, this happens in some important places. Woodrow Sundiata, the cold, imperious man whom Hannah marries and has three children with has few redeeming qualities, and it's never clear why she wed him. It also remains unclear why a group of chimpanzees formerly used for medical research living in a lab she presides over captivate her so, aside from providing a distraction from an unhappy marriage.

These flaws are curious because they are not part of broader deficiencies in Banks' writing. His eerily accurate descriptions of Hannah's two dogs in the opening pages proves he can write intelligently about animals, and his devastating portrayal of the corruption and political violence running amok in Liberia reveals a keen understanding of the "Dark Continent."

Banks' pacing is also haphazard. It's difficult for a novel told in The Darling's style to be very suspenseful--after all, we know Hannah ultimately survives her ordeal--but the novel still has significant lack of momentum until the midpoint. Then, just as the action is heating up, Banks chooses to reveal key details unnecessarily. When Hannah casually lets slip her children went on to become boy-soldiers, it seems like the rest of her story is bound to be anti-climactic; surely enough, it is.

In spite of the novel's flaws, it would be a shame if Banks returned to New England settings and male protagonists in his next book. The Darling reveals a talent large enough to expand beyond those limited parameters.

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