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The Darling [Paperback]

Russell Banks
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
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Book Description

Sept. 27 2005

Set in Liberia and the United States from 1975 through 1991, The Darling is the story of Hannah Musgrave, a political radical and member of the Weather Underground.

Hannah flees America for West Africa, where she and her Liberian husband become friends of the notorious warlord and ex-president, Charles Taylor. Hannah's encounter with Taylor ultimately triggers a series of events whose momentum catches Hannah's family in its grip and forces her to make a heartrending choice.


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From Publishers Weekly

Six years after the publication of his much-lauded novel Cloudsplitter, Banks returns with a portrayal of personal and political turmoil in West Africa and the U.S. The darling of the title is narrator Hannah Musgrave, a privileged child of the turbulent 1960s and '70s, who now, at 59, reflects on her life. After participating in freewheeling sexual experimentation and radical politics, Hannah is wanted by the FBI for her involvement in the Weather Underground. Under an assumed name, she flees the U.S. for Africa, traveling first to Ghana, then Liberia, where in 1976 she meets and marries Woodrow Sundiata, a government official. Taking on another identity—that of foreign wife, and eventually mother to three sons—Hannah finds herself increasingly involved with the highest members of Liberia's government as Woodrow's political star rises. She also finds purpose in establishing a sanctuary for endangered chimpanzees. When Liberia explodes into civil war, Hannah's life and the lives of her family are in danger. Readers will be stunned by the gut-wrenching (and often foolish) decisions she makes—and by the horrifying outcome of her association with key figures such as Liberian president Samuel Doe and insurgent Charles Taylor. An articulate and keenly observant narrator, Hannah explains Liberia's history and U.S. connections as smoothly as she reflects on tribal practices, the fate of chimpanzees and her own misguidedness. Better yet, for the purposes of good storytelling, she is conflicted and selfish, and often naïve despite her wide experience. She emerges as a fascinating figure, striking universal chords in her search for identity and home, though her life may ultimately be a study in futility. A rich and complex look at the searing connections between the personal and the political, this is one of Banks's most powerful novels yet.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

*Starred Review* American Hannah Musgrave, aka Dawn Carrington after her radical politics necessitated her going underground, ends up in Liberia in the 1980s, a struggling country once conceived as the promised land for freed African American slaves. She finds work in a shabby medical lab that houses a group of traumatized chimpanzees, and forms a deep bond with them that is more meaningful to her than relationships with humans. Even so, she is grateful enough for the protection of Liberia's minister of public health, Woodrow Sundiata, to marry him. She and he are essentially unknowable to each other--Hannah's visit to Woodrow's village is a brilliant rendition of culture shock--but their marriage is mutually beneficial, and Hannah quickly produces three sons. But not even chameleon-like Hannah and Woodrow can steer clear of the bloodshed that erupts when corrupt and vicious Samuel Doe comes to power and is, in turn, challenged by the equally ruthless Charles Taylor. Clearly smitten with his thorny narrator, Banks brings the full weight of his storytelling genius and psychological perceptiveness to a novel as compulsively readable as it is eviscerating in its dramatization of cultural divides, political mayhem, psychotic violence, and profound alienation. Banks' dramatic interpretation of Liberia's real-life tragedies brilliantly extends the vital inquiry into the consequences of slavery found in Cloudsplitter (1997), and his meditation on our close ties to other species poses urgent questions about how our greed and cruelty result in the endangerment of not only animals but also human kindness, empathy, and peace. Donna Seaman
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "There are certain things about me' Sept. 25 2008
By Friederike Knabe TOP 100 REVIEWER
Format:Paperback
... that I won't reveal to you until you understand...", Hannah Musgrave tells her readers. She is the central axis of this rich and engaging tale of one woman's journey from a privileged childhood to quiet life on a farm in the Adirondack Mountains in upstate New York. The interim period, however, is dramatic and unconventional. She drops out of her middle class life as a young student, frustrated with the comfort of that life and the people around her. Joining the Weathermen Underground in the early nineteen seventies, she participates at the fringe of the movement. Eventually she escapes to West Africa and settles for an extensive period in Liberia, witnessing the overthrow of the corrupt pro-US president Tolbert by the brutal regime of Samuel Doe, a lowly military officer, and the complete collapse of the Liberian society, ending with the no less violent regime of Charles Taylor.

Now in her late fifties, she is recounting her story, divulging her varied life experiences in different episodes and on a need-to-know basis. Russell Banks captures her voice convincingly, getting into her mind, as well as, he explained elsewhere, "being her very close trusted male friend" who listens empathetically to her story. Will the reader do the same?

Hannah's account is of herself against the backdrop of dramatic circumstances. As the revelations progress, the readers are able to see beyond her words and messages and paint a more comprehensive picture of Hannah's strengths and weaknesses than she can herself. Bank is brilliant in providing the tools for such a process. Factual descriptions of her surroundings unwittingly divulge more of her persona than she intends, adding depth and incisiveness to her version of events.
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Amazon.com: 3.8 out of 5 stars  67 reviews
24 of 24 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Caution: Russell Banks is my favorite! Oct. 20 2004
By M. G Haury - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Russell Banks is a master at evoking a time and place. In his latest novel, The Darling, the reader is in Africa. It is the mid-1970s. We can see the Liberian coastline, smell the palm oil mingled with sweat, hear the screech of the chimpanzees and feel the claustrophobic heat. More importantly, we experience western Africa through the lens of a privileged, white American woman, Hannah Musgrove who is "the darling" of the title. Banks tells this historical and political story, most of it in flashbacks, skillfully and successfully through the point of view of this woman.

Hannah is a fascinating character, full of tensions and contradictions. She has lead a sheltered life of wealth as the daughter of a famous and intellectual man, yet her politically liberal parents have instilled in her (sometimes seemingly in spite of themselves) a sincere empathy for the poor and oppressed. She is cold and calculating in her relationships with others yet has an almost mystical connection with the chimpanzees she comes to know and love and is passionate about her politics. Hannah makes some decisions, which she feels she needs to contextualize and explain herself to the reader in order not to seem "scary". To dwell on the plot, however, does this gem of a novel a disservice. Banks is simply a genius at conveying a difficult story and doing it so well that we care deeply about it.
39 of 45 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Out of Africa ... a tale of dislocation Oct. 16 2004
By Ron Franscell, Author of 'The Darkest Night' - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Russell Banks has made his mark writing about mad people in significantly unsettled worlds, from the Pulitzer Prize-finalist "Cloudsplitter" (about violent abolitionist John Brown) to "Affliction" (about an alcoholic's insidious effect on his circle of dysfunction.)

But in his newest novel, "The Darling," he subtly reverses his field with provocative results: His heroine is a significantly unsettled character in a mad world. What might seem a nuance is actually quite startlingly different.

Africa has popped up in the well-traveled Banks' stories before. The setting for some of the storytelling in his 2001 short-story collection, "Angel on the Roof," it provides an atmospheric context for complex exploration of black and white, head and heart, man and beast, love and survival ... sanity and madness.

Banks' themes of terror, self-doubt, the collision of races (if not worlds), the relentless passage of time, and political violence are not the stuff of modern commercial book-publishing, but he keeps coming back to them with incisive style.

Banks remains one of America's most readable literary authors. He's always tackled grand issues with grand prose, and his muscular narrative generally wins. Often compared to Graham Greene, Joseph Conrad or William Faulkner -- not the most accessible trio of literary writers ever assembled -- Banks sets himself apart as more clear, if not more relevant, for today's readers. Readers who fell headlong into "The Sweet Hereafter" or "Continental Drift" will not be disabused by "The Darling."
12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Coming of age + history + politics = good read May 14 2006
By Alan Mills - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Like all the novels Darling works on several different levels. First, it is a good story . . . kept moving, good characters, suspense, enough moving back and forth in time to tantalize you, but not so much as to totally confuse you. So, it is simply a good read.

It also worked as a "coming of age" story-although, read as just that, it would of course be a little over the top. Nonetheless, she goes through all the "typical" stages of adolescent rebellion (Weather Underground), forbidden love, independence from parents (how much more independent can you be than moving to Africa and never speaking to them!), marriage, child rearing, divorce/distance in marriage, empty nest syndrome, and replacement of familial ties with other objects of passion (here the chimps), death of parent, an attempt recapture "youth" (her trip back to Africa), and a second life post-retirement. During each phase she clearly develops a new personality (or at least changes in significant ways).

It also reads as a commentary on U.S. Foreign policy-which is what I think is implied in the title. Here she is, having gone through all of these "phases" in her personal life-joining a revolutionary underground which actually blows things up, fomenting revolution and mass slaughter in an African country, and living as a fugitive for decades. However, while the lives of everyone in Liberia are completely upended and made a living hell because of that country's revolution(s), her life ends up being virtually unaffected-she ends up as a "gentleman" farmer, about as normal an occupation as there is in the world, and all of her revolutionary activities, at least in this country, have, in the end, changed nothing-except her. Hence, she is, at the end, nothing but an "American Darling".

This is a fine allegory for the way the U.S. stumbles around the world, intervening in other countries, sometimes (but not usually) with the best of intentions, makes a holly mess, and then blithely disappears, blaming the country we've so thoroughly screwed up for being "backward" and beyond hope. Iraq anyone?
10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars From darkest Africa Jan. 3 2006
By Roger Brunyate - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
"Mainly, we return to a place in order to learn why we left," writes Hannah Musgrave, the narrator-protagonist of this many-layered book. Now approaching sixty, she returns one more time to war-torn Liberia where she had lived for much of her adult life. The learning about why she left provides the narrative mainspring of the book. The Graham Greene-like story set in the midst of the Liberian civil war (including several real characters) is fascinating and often intensely atmospheric. But (at the price of an interior monologue that can occasionally get a bit repetitious) its larger purpose is to illuminate Hannah's inner journey. An upper-middle-class baby boomer (her father seems based on Dr. Benjamin Spock), turned radical activist, alienated from country and family, she finally finds a kind of peace running a chimpanzee sanctuary as a kind of Liberian Jane Goodall.

But it is also true that we go away in order to better understand the place we came from. And this is the surprising reward of the book, a resonance that keeps growing after one stops reading. From the very beginning, you know you are in the hands of a master. Hannah first introduces herself running a quiet farm in upstate New York surrounded entirely by women. A few pages later, she is being smuggled back into the devastation of Liberia. In Banks' hands, the contrast between the two worlds is magnificently handled, and the brightness of one illuminates the darkness of the other. Or conversely, the darkness make the light more precious. While this is a book about a strong woman in extraordinary circumstances, her life nonetheless sheds light upon the ordinary passages of ordinary lives: the search for identity, sexual discovery, parenthood, coming to terms with one's own parents, and the quest for meaning. And all of these ring very true indeed.

Why is the book called THE DARLING? Except in passing, the word does not appear until the book's final sentence, and there it seems ironic in effect because Hannah has been presented as everything but the pampered, compliant American woman. And yet her entire life has been shaped by the desire to break out of this stereotype. Other Amazon reviewers have commented that Hannah is difficult to like, and it is true that she is detached from her surroundings and from most people in her life except her chimps. But she is not difficult to understand -- not at least for one who has grown up in the same generation. Her detachment gives her voice an edgy wit and devastating power. Ultimately, she has the capacity to reveal more of herself to the reader than she would ever do to her family or friends, and those revelations are compelling and profound.
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Nowhere at Home June 10 2006
By Afictionado - Published on Amazon.com
Hannah Musgrave is nowhere at home -- not in her parents' house, not in her lover's apartment, not in her adopted country of Liberia, and not in the rural village she retires to.

She's emotionally detached as well, keeping a safe distance from everyone she knows, including her husband and children. She's either unwilling or incapable of forming an honest and meaningful bond with anyone, and the only living things she shows any real concern for are the chimpanzees she rescues and takes care of.

Hannah is remote and self-absorbed -- the product of a pampered and privileged childhood. She's not a bad person, but she's certainly not a very likable one. Yet we're sympathetic to her and we want to see her succeed.

"The Darling" is the story of Hannah's life, and how the decisions she made affected the course of Liberia's violent revolution. But it's also a vivid character study, as well as a cynical social commentary about political expediency and government corruption.

I like Russell Banks, but I don't like everything he's written. I had to force myself through "Cloudsplitter," for example, and the short story collection "The Angel on the Roof" barely held my attention. "The Darling," on the other hand, is compelling and intriguing. Reading this book is time well spent.
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