Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Russell Banks's "The Darling" (2004)

Since late April, I've been reading The Darling (two months, give-or-take, is my current timeframe for getting through a novel).

Russell Banks is a super writer. I remember thoroughly enjoying Continental Drift, but I hadn't read anything by him for a few years. He hits the sweet spot in terms of complexity-level: vocabulary, individual sentence structure, and thematic structure. Banks is more sophisticated than two of my favorites, Tom Perotta and Anne Tyler, but more accessible/readable than two others, Colm McCann and Ian McEwen.

I particularly like Banks on the level of his individual sentences. They are quite beautiful, even when the subject matter is not.

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The Darling is the story of Hannah Musgrave, an ex-Weatherman, who travels to Liberia, marries a government official (Woodrow Sundiata) and has three children. Their family is tangentially involved in the civil unrest in Liberia and eventual rise of Charles Taylor. She flees Liberia, then returns ten years later on a quest to learn what happened to her sons and the chimpanzees that she cared for.

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A major theme of the novel is identity. Hannah goes by multiple names (including "Hannah darling", which I gather is a reference to a Chekhov novel), and she struggles with a number of dualities in her identity:
  • American versus expat
  • Radical versus conventional
  • Mother of three boys versus caretaker of chimpanzees (with whom she identifies more than her children)
  • Attached/devoted daughter versus out-of-touch daughter who strives for physical and emotional distance from her parents
I liked the overlay of Liberian history, although the Charles Taylor subplot was not developed as much as I expected.

The chimpanzee subplot was something of a mystery to me.  I think Banks was exploring the ties between humans and animals, and their similarities and differences, but I was not entirely clear on what Hannah learned from the chimps.

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Parts of The Darling are quite dramatic, and I actually discovered this morning (while Googling for a cover picture) that a movie adaptation is in the works.  Jessica Chastain will play Hannah.

For now, I am looking forward to reading some more Russell Banks. I am leaning towards Cloudsplitter, which is his take on John Brown.

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