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Book Review: The Darling, By Russell Banks

Well, not being quite as cool as Dean Snyder, I wasn't able to actually travel to Liberia this year, but I did just read a book that is set (mostly) in Liberia - The Darling by Russell Banks.

I found the book - fascinating. I'm still not sure if I liked or disliked it - it is not a typical novel in many ways. The 'heroine', if such a word is appropriate, is a woman named Hannah Musgrove. Through a series of flashbacks, we follow her life from her late-teens/early twenties to her late fifties at the close of the novel. She's not a particularly likeable character, but I found myself routing for her anyway, or at least rooting for her to get with it! Hannah is involved in the Civil Rights Movement in the US in her early years, but quickly gets drawn into more dangerous/extremist political groups, and eventually flees to Africa to go "underground."

She ends up in Liberia, marries a man who is not too high and not to low in government, and has three children with him. The heart of the book takes place against the background of unfolding events in Liberia - civil war, terror, unrest, chaos, military coups, and eventually, the rise of Charles Taylor to power. Hannah seeks her identity in the midst of all this, and as she shares the only love she seems to be able to give with her dreamers, the chimpazees she cares for at a lab.

One quote from the book: "It may seem strange to you, but something about prisons, jails, cages comforts me. All my life I've run from confinement and tried to keep others, even animals from being imprisoned. Yet whenever I come close to an actual place of confinement . . . something inside me clicks off and something else clicks on. Dread gets replaced by complacent, almost grateful acceptance . . . [When I was in jail for two nights] having relinquished my physical freedom, I was somehow free in a new and more satisfying way." (pg 291)

The book certainly is, as I said, fascinating. The politics of US relations with other countries, the personal journey of someone trying to make peace with haunting events and choices from the past, and many other issues interwoven - it is a very layered story. Worth a read, I think, even if I can't say you'll "like" it!

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