Synopses & Reviews
“After many years of believing that I never dream of anything, I dreamed of Africa.”
Over a decade after leaving her three sons behind in Liberia, Hannah Musgrave realizes she has to leave her farm in the Adirondacks and find out what has happened to them and the chimpanzees for whom she created a sanctuary. The Darling is the story of her return to the wreckage of west Africa and the story of her past, from her middle-class American upbringing to her years in the Weather Underground. It is also one of the most powerful novels of the decade, an unforgettable tale of growth and loss, and an unstinting exploration of some of the most troubling issues of our time: terrorism, race, and the contact between the first world and the third.
Hannah Musgrave, the narrator of The Darling, tells us she first travelled to Africa in the mid-1970s, to escape prosecution for her radical political activities with the Weathermen. Arriving in Liberia to work in a medical research lab, Hannah – also known by her alias, Dawn Carrington – meets Woodrow Sundiata, an official in the ministry of public health, and they fall immediately in love. Courting with Woodrow, an intelligent, ambitious man, means encountering his other life in his ancestral village of Fuama – a life that could scarcely be more different from Hannah’s affluent childhood as the daughter of a bestselling pediatrician. Hannah and Woodrow start a family, but she feels herself to be somehow estranged from her life in Liberia and curiously detached from her husband and three sons. Still in search of herself as her children grow older, Hannah develops a closer and closer bond with the chimpanzees at the lab, whom she calls “dreamers.”
During the early 1980s, Liberian society grows more unstable, until an illiterate soldier named Samuel Doe brutally overthrows and assassinates the president. Hannah’s courageous intervention with Doe leads to Woodrow’s release from detention, but at a price: she must return to the US, leaving her family behind. Hannah feels that her dreamers will feel her absence more deeply than her family will.
In the US Hannah briefly reconnects with her parents after years of estrangement before returning to her friends from her underground years. One of them, Zack Procter, is involved with a plan to spring Charles Taylor – an attractive Liberian politician – from jail, and Hannah involves herself with the plot, genuinely believing that Taylor will bring social democracy to west Africa.
Hannah gets permission to return to her family in the mid-1980s, and decides that this time things will be different: she will take charge of her home life, ousting Woodrow’s young cousin Jeanette, and she will build a sanctuary for her chimpanzees. But Charles Taylor has also returned, and his slow and bloody rebellion against Doe leads, eventually, to a night of horrific violence in which Woodrow is murdered and Hannah’s teenaged children disappear. Amidst chaos and almost unbelievable bloodshed, Hannah has time only to move her dreamers to Boniface Island before facing the heartrending decision to escape Liberia, leaving her children behind. More than ten years will pass before she can return to discover their fate, and understand her own.
About the Author
“The way I feel about every book is this: you don’t finish it, you abandon it. All of my books have in some sense failed, otherwise I wouldn’t write another one. If I wrote the perfect book, I wouldn’t have to write again, and I wouldn’t want to. That’s not true for everyone, but it’s true for me. I could walk away then. But so far I haven’t managed to do it.”
Russell Banks’ books include Searching for Survivors, Family Life, Hamilton Stark, The New World, Book of Jamaica, Trailerpark, The Relation of My Imprisonment, Continental Drift, Success Stories, Affliction, The Sweet Hereafter, Rule of the Bone, Cloudsplitter, and The Angel On The Roof, a collection of short stories. He has also contributed poems, stories and essays to Vanity Fair, The New York Times Book Review, Esquire, Harper’s, and many other publications.
Mr. Banks was raised in New Hampshire and eastern Massachusetts and is the eldest of four children. He grew up in a working-class environment – a major influence on his writing – and was the first member of his family to go to college. After graduating Phi Beta Kappa from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, he worked as a plumber, shoe salesman and window cleaner. More recently he has taught in the writing programs at Columbia University, Sarah Lawrence College, the University of Alabama, New England College, New York University and Princeton University.
Acclaimed as “the most important living white American male on the official literary map” by The Village Voice, Banks has been praised for his empathy, his compassion for his characters, and his attempts to grapple with the moral ambiguities of contemporary life. He has also been repeatedly recognized for his ability to evoke the texture of ordinary American lives and the humanity he brings to what are often dark and brutal tales of poverty, violence, hard living and domestic abuse.
Mr. Banks has received several prizes and awards for his work, including a Guggenheim Fellowship, National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellowships, Ingram Merrill Award, The St. Lawrence Award for Short Fiction, O. Henry and Best American Short Story Award, The John Dos Passos Prize, and the Literature Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Continental Drift and Cloudsplitter were finalists for the Pulitzer Prize in 1986 and 1998 respectively. Affliction was short listed for both the PEN/Faulkner Fiction Prize and the Irish International Prize.
His works have been widely translated and published in Europe and Asia. Two of his novels have been adapted for feature-length films, The Sweet Hereafter (directed by Atom Egoyan, winner of the Grand Prix and International Critics Prize at the 1997 Cannes Film Festival) and Affliction (directed by Paul Schrader, starring Nick Nolte, Willem Dafoe, Sissy Spacek, and James Coburn). He is the screenwriter of a film adaptation of Continental Drift.
Russell Banks lives in upstate New York. He is married to the poet Chase Twichell, and is the father of four grown daughters.
1. Did writing in the voice of a female protagonist present any special challenges?
Not any greater challenge than the voice of Bone in Rule of the Bone or Owen Brown in Cloudsplitter or any of the four narrators of The Sweet Hereafter (two of whom were female, incidentally). I’ve spent my life listening to strong articulate females, my mother, my four daughters, my wife and my ex-wives. And I have a number of close women friends who are strong and articulate. I know how women talk when they talk to men. Of course, I have no idea how they talk when there are no men present. (See below, no. 3.)
2. How much did you have to learn about Liberia, the Weather Underground, chimpanzees, to write The Darling? How do you go about your research?
I already knew a lot about the history of Liberia from research I did for Cloudsplitter on the early abolitionist movement in the US. That’s what triggered my interest. And I have traveled fairly extensively in Africa, from Tanzania in the east to Senegal and Sierra Leone in the west. And I could draw from my own personal experience in the 1960s and 70s when I was involved in the Civil Rights and Anti-War movements in the US (though I was never a member of Weatherman, I was a founding member of the SDS chapter at my university, UNC Chapel Hill). As for chimpanzees, I visited a number of sanctuaries in the US, Canada, and West Africa. And in all matters, read as much as I could find. Interviewed Liberian refugees, CIA agents, ex-Weather people..., etc.
3. In The Conversations, Michael Ondaatje made the following comment about one of your books, and I wonder if you had anything like this in mind when you were creating the contemplative, frank, questioning voice of Hannah Musgrave:
When Russell Banks was asked about the narrative voice he used in his novel Rule of the Bone, he said he imagined two boys lying in their bunks, in the summertime, almost asleep. One is looking up at the ceiling and talking. Russell wanted the narrative voice to have a similarly open confessional tone, as if saying: ‘It’s dark and I trust you, and you’re lying next to me and we’re near sleep, and I’m going to risk telling you the truth.’
Yes, indeed. I feel strongly that you can’t hear your narrator until you have invented yourself as a listener. In Hannah’s case, I imagined myself as her trusted male friend and neighbor, a guy she likes and thinks will understand her, and throughout the writing of the book, I imagined myself as sitting with her on the porch of her farm in Keene Valley, NY (which is also where I happen to reside), listening to her tell her story. I don’t feel like a ventriloquist, speaking through my characters, but rather as a listener, hearing my characters.
4. What inspired you to write The Darling? How do you see the themes of the novel relating to those you have explored in your previous work?
The racial themes are obviously there, and the moral questions surrounding principled violence, or as we call it today, terrorism. And the theme concerning the relations between adults and children, although usually I’ve been more interested in the relations between male adults and children than here. To me, the central American narrative is the story of race. I can’t say that “inspired” me to write The Darling, but it gave me direction and focus. If anything “inspired” me, I suppose it was the early glimmerings of the character of Hannah, who grew out of a number of women I have known, some of them political activists, some of them involved with the protection of animals, in particular higher primates But inspiration comes from many sources. One can cite literary sources, autobiographical, and historical sources. In the end, it’s a mystery.
5. Are there any tips you would give a book club to better navigate their discussion of your book?
I would be interested in hearing readers discuss Hannah in terms of other women they know from literature, especially inasmuch as she invokes ambivalence in the reader and a kind of love/hate relationship. By the same token, I would be interested in hearing readers discuss Hannah’s behavior if she were a man, not a woman. How would they feel about it then? Would they judge her the same way, or would they idealize her? Would she seem more “tragic” if she were a man? More important?
6. Which authors have been most influential to your own writing?
For this book? I ask because every book has different influences. But for this book, Greene, obviously. No one manages to control the relationship between political background and personal foreground as effectively, in dramatic terms, as Graham Greene. Unless it’s Conrad. And in every novel there’s a secret, or not-so-secret ladder the author climbs. In my case, it’s Shakespeare’s The Tempest.