"You want to see me in light, but I'm visible only in darkness," says Hannah Musgrave, the enigmatic heroine of Russell Banks' beguiling novel The Darling. "I'm obliterated by light, and can't cast it, either. I'm like a white shadow." Throughout Banks' loping historical fiction, Hannah details her deep involvement in Weather Underground and Charles Taylor's bloody ascension in Liberia, yet these galvanizing events don't bring readers any closer to understanding her. If anything, she grows more elusive and alienating as the book progresses, with a conscience that swells and recedes like the tides: Sometimes, it awakens with sharp moral certainty and action, only to lapse into remission for long stretches of time. She's a frustrating, compromised, and often unsympathetic character, but Banks refuses to explain away her contradictions for the sake of psychological tidiness.
Much like Banks' Cloudsplittera searing appraisal of John Brown's legacy as an abolitionist and as a fatherThe Darling inserts a fictional hero into the crossroads of history, which he illuminates with fresh insight. As The Darling opens, Musgrave presides over a small farm in the Adirondacks, a 59-year-old woman ready to embark on a dangerous pilgrimage to Liberia, where she'll sift through the last wreckage of her life. As the daughter of upper-middle-class Cambridge liberals, Musgrave has strong ideals that lead to college radicalism, first in civil-rights protests in the South, and later as a low-ranking member of Weather Underground, the leftist terror group that vowed to "bring the war home." After spending years evading the FBI with a false identity, she flees the country for the American-backed Republic of Liberia, where she faces a new set of political problems. Sinking into disturbing complacency, she marries low-level cabinet minister Woodrow Sundiata and bears him three sons, but her only real connection is with the chimpanzees ("my dreamers," as she calls them) she minds at an animal sanctuary.
Following the "sins of the father" theme of Cloudsplitter and Affliction, Banks reveals the clear marks of Musgrave's aloofness and misappropriated idealism, from her efforts to spring Charles Taylor from an American jail to the distant mothering that leads her sons to become boy-soldiers with handles like "Worse Than Death" and "Demonology." Some of her errors relate to judgment, others to bad timing, but at heart, she doesn't have a strong grasp on her own identity, and Banks accounts for her slippery nature with remarkable clarity and conviction. In a way, The Darling's most revealing passages deal with attachment to chimpanzees, perhaps because they throw Musgrave's detachment from the rest of humanity into sharp relief. Her sacred, almost mystical bond with her "dreamers" represents her last, failed hope to bring positive change to a world that didn't live up to her standards, or vice-versa.