(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Throughout his literary career, Russell Banks has been writing fiction that explores the dynamic interactions between place, sex, race, and social class in the formation of individual identity and fate: imaginative inquiries always set against larger political patterns of modern history. With his tenth novel, The Darling, Banks pursues his characteristic concerns through his fictive narrator-protagonist Hannah Musgrave, the daughter of a famous pediatrician and antiwar activist clearly modeled on Dr. Benjamin Spock, who authored Baby and Child Care in 1946; this best-selling guide to enlightened childrearing had a profound influence on the raising of the baby-boom generation.

An overrefined product of genteel parenting, affluence, and a first-rate education, Hannah evolves into an ardent idealist who ultimately channels her outrage over the Vietnam War—and corporate capitalist hegemony in general—by joining the Weather Underground, the ultra-radical faction of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), founded in 1969 to effect the violent overthrow of the U.S. government. Banks uses Hannah's brief and mostly ineffectual career as a revolutionary to point up a glaring contradiction played out in the 1960's and 1970's: that often the most zealous New Left radicals hailed from middle, upper-middle, and upper-class backgrounds, that is, the social formations least oppressed by “the system.”

The ironic outcome of a structural contradiction of modern capitalism, the radicalization of people like Hannah was not experientially based but theoretical, a function of privileged entrée into cutting-edge sociopolitical critique at elite universities that most of the population was (and is) not in a position to access or understand. In other words, the poor and disenfranchised are more likely to be docile minions of the political economy that oppresses them, whereas that same system grants its favored few the precious leisure and knowledge that enables some of them to be its most trenchant critics and bitter opponents.

Banks also dramatizes another problematic aspect of radical chic in the ludicrous figure of Zack Procter, a comrade of Hannah in the Weather Underground who turns out to be an opportunistic liar, thief, coward, and finally a greedy capitalist. For Zack and many of his real-life (male) counterparts in the “revolutionary” movement, rocking the state was probably more Oedipal than ideological, more driven by testosterone, youthful recklessness, and resentment against overbearing parental authority than by a principled rejection of war or the corporatist status quo.

In terms of plot mechanics, Zack functions as a catalyst figure. Accidentally shooting himself with his own gun, Zack claims that he was in a shootout with political adversaries and persuades Hannah to flee to Ghana with him to avoid capture or worse. Once in Africa, Hannah and Zack eventually separate, and Hannah finds her way, alone, to the West African nation of Liberia, where she takes a low-level job in a Monrovia laboratory that is running blood tests using chimpanzees. Through her job Hannah meets Woodrow Sundiata, Liberia's minister of health. The two eventually marry and have three sons. Hannah's long sojourn in Liberia, from 1971 to 1990 (interrupted by a short-lived exile to the United States in 1983) forms the crux of the novel and affords Banks ample opportunity to explore a number of related matters.

Foremost among these issues is that of race. Living in an African nation and marrying a black African, Hannah is forced to confront her whiteness and her U.S. nationality as a conspicuous minority phenomenon, an experience most Americans never have to face or even contemplate. She also has to deal with moments of severe culture shock. This is best dramatized when Woodrow takes Hannah to Fuama, his home village, to meet his family—he has approximately forty-two siblings—and to celebrate their impending marriage. The main course proudly served at the wedding feast is “bush meat,”—roasted chimpanzee, a local delicacy that Hannah understandably finds revolting.

Allowed to flee the celebrations, Hannah returns to Woodrow's Mercedes parked outside the village and spends the night, drinking and having sex with her husband's chauffeur, Satterthwaite, a betrayal that defines the harsh cultural and emotional limits of her marriage. Hannah experiences her outsider status in a milder form in her daily life as a...

(The entire section is 1816 words.)