Friday, July 11, 2008

Idealism and imperfection (Books - The Darling by Russell Banks)

In Russell Banks's recent book The Reserve, style is on display - noir, to be exact - and I remember finding myself very aware of the solidity of the third-person narrator but not convinced by Vanessa, the central character (my three posts on it are linked here). In The Darling, his first-person narrator Hannah Musgrave, aka, Dawn Carrington is telling us her own story. I wondered if Banks would pull off an entire book in the character of a woman and so far he has, granted I am still 60 pages from the end, but I haven't questioned his character for the most part and in this book the writing is unselfconscious, I really haven't given it much thought. I'm reading this as a book about an idealist coming to terms with the imperfections of her own humanity. Hannah is a Brandeis graduate (my alma mater) who takes up a radical political life in the 1960s when she graduates, first registering voters in America's South and later joining the underground movement called the Weathermen, performing acts that although motivated by serious politics and good intentions are criminal under the law. She spends a good part of the book on the lam, wanted by the U.S. government for her actions. Her father, a well-to-do physician turned liberal politician and her mother, a loving, clueless wife who Hannah wants desperately never to emulate, can rarely see or speak to her once she goes into hiding. Oddly, she does end up emulating her for a time.

I remembered my vows as a teenage girl and later as a grown woman never, never to become dependent on a man's fate. I'd seen early on how it had paralyzed my mother, and from that vantage point, still a girl's, I had looked ahead at what the world would offer me when I became a woman, and had pledged that I would take it only on my own terms.

Hannah ends up in Liberia, in some ways the American liberal's dream-country - founded by freed slaves in the 1800s, it gave those men and women their own land and a chance to run their own lives with compassion and idealism learned from their years in unjust captivity and with the support of the U.S. government. As with most experiments creating nations, there were problems. The U.S. forgot about the tribes who were already living in that territory and knew nothing about their relationships with each other, and created a cauldron of tribal tensions fueled by a corrupt government. Hannah marries a government minister in Liberia, having three children, and very much living the life of the wife of a politician - the life of her mother - until she is forced out by the coup of Samuel Doe, and leaves her husband and children behind. The book is written in retrospect, with Hannah as an older woman, living a simple life on a chicken farm in upstate New York, she decides to search for her sons and returns to Liberia, remembering her life as she writes it down for us.

While I found some of the political history fascinating (and well integrated with the story), I feel that the strongest writing in the book is about Hannah's relationships - with her sometime lover Carol, with her husband, with the chimpanzees whose humane treatment she champions, but particularly with her parents.

I'm no longer the same person I was when this exchange between me and my parents took placed. But I can see how, just in telling you about the exchange, I revert, not quite to my childhood state of mind, but to adolescence, or even to pre-adolescence. Both my parents are long dead now. In the intervening years I've been married, widowed, and borne three children; I've perpetrated a hundred large and small betrayals and abandonments; perfect lovers have been replaced by other perfect lovers, men have replaced women and boys have replaced men, and Africans have replaced Americans, who have been replaced by Americans again; chimpanzees in cages have replaced a childhood pet, and Border collies, free-roaming farm dogs, haver replaced the chimpanzees; and I've gone on alone, untouched, undeterred, unbetrothed, a woman whose essence is a white shadow, a spirit of the river, on of those mammi wattas.

Russell Banks seems drawn to strong female characters with emotionally frail, clueless Yankee mothers - the same tension was played out in The Reserve but in a much more extreme fashion. I found this relationship better developed and both more compassionate and more believable. The Darling is not a light read, but I have found the events compelling. I do not question the settings in many countries and through several decades that this plot runs through. He seems to always choose the proper details to fill out a world. For instance, when Hannah returns to the U.S. after the coup in Liberia, she ends up staying with Carol and Zack, both former lovers, and Carol's daughter, while she figures out her next move. Banks covers this period in maybe ten pages or so because it is not a vital part of the plot, but he doesn't relegate a scene or character to a "secondary" status. If he bothers to create it at all, he creates a scene with attention to detail that makes is wholly believable. You can see Hannah become part of Carol's household again in one wonderful detail - she begins to braid her daughter's hair like her own every morning and brush it out every evening. There was something about this simple detail that was like the choice of action that an actor would make. People live through actions not concepts, and Banks writing embodies this. Its one of the things that makes the worlds and people he creates so tangible, even when that character or scene is not a central one.

I'm not quite finished with the book yet, but I hope to be by the end of the day. I'll check back in if my experience of the ending seems to add anything to my reactions.


Anonymous said...

I've yet to dip into Russell Banks's writing although I have one of his books waiting for me on the shelf. I think you've read several of his works, is there one you would recommend as a good place to start?

Ted said...

Hi Verb - I have only read The Reserve and The Darling. Of the two, I would say The Darling is by far the stronger. Affliction, Cloudsplitter, and The Sweet Hereafter are all supposed to be very good, the latter is a book many people are enthusiastic about, but I had seen the movie and wanted to start by reading a fresh story.

Anonymous said...

Thanks this is helpful. I have Cloudsplitter on the shelf so might as well start with that one - course its huge, so I've been putting it off.