Books: The Darling

Can a book be grieved? It’s not a person, after all, or a beloved pet, or a plant you’ve cared for and coaxed into bloom each spring. It’s a book.

I’ve said before that books are like lovers. Private companions. We take them to bed, tuck them into our bags, panic (as I did) when we misplace a book pages from its conclusion.

picture The object of my grief? Russell Banks “The Darling” (2004). Hannah Musgrave is a 60ish hippie farmer who returns to Africa to find the body of her husband and the fate of their three young sons.

Hello? Why is a counterculture WASP who clings to her Puritan roots sneaking into Liberia in the back of a flatbed, under a tarp?

The answer to that question is the story of the book, and in Banks’ hands it is a deliciously slow, steady, surprising read.

It’s a discomfiting tale. Hannah is variously cold, uncaring, willfully blind, criminal, proud, foolish, naive, mean, generous, racist, sexist. Also, an adulterer, and a thief. Her husband is a high-level functionary in a corrupt African government; it is he who calls her Hannah, darling.

Like the characters in Banks’ “The Book of Jamaica” (1980) and “Continental Drift “(1985), Hannah is the American dreamer who loses herself in a foreign place, with tragic consequences.

As with all Banks’ work, this is a story of place. He weaves Liberia’s fantastic past into the story’s present, where the nation and its decorous capital turn from civility to savagery.

I didn’t especially like Hannah — she trades a false American existence for a hollow wifely life in Africa — but I understood her choices. At its close, I felt like I’d lost a difficult but treasured friend, one whose life was more varied, and more foolish.

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