The Darling Paperback – 2005
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The Darling: A Novel
Top Customer Reviews
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.Read more ›
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
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.
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."
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?
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.
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.