The Darling, by Russel Banks, Read by Mary Beth Hurt, BBC Audiobooks
There is something rather frustrating about reading Banks’ 2003 novel The Darling as narrated by Dawn Carrington, neé Hannah Musgrave, a 60’s radical, ex-member of the Weather Underground, expatriate to
One needn’t be a soothsayer, however, to predict that Charles Taylor’s return to
This is what makes her so frustrating, yet it is this willful blindness that propels her story specifically along, and since it is her story, you must ask yourself where would we be without it? Were she a cannier character she’d never have fallen in with her idiotic radical friend, a wanna-be big shot associated with the underground whose bumbling prompted her flight to Liberia. Were she cannier she’d not have married Woodrow Sundiata, a man in a precarious position in President Samuel Doe’s frail government. Were she cannier she’d have guessed that one of her frequent American contacts was a CIA plant, subtly manipulating her actions for his own ends. Were she cannier and avoided any of these bad choices, she’d likely have graduated from college, gotten married, and settled down to a life of occasional peace marches with her famous pediatrician father.
Not that that couldn’t just as equally be a compelling novel. In fact, it might have been a better novel altogether. Which isn’t to say that Banks’ book is not interesting and readable, just that so many of these high-stakes scrapes that cause Dawn so much heartache and repeatedly almost end in her death could have been sidestepped with an ounce of foresight or insight into people’s character.
Our heroine in the very first chapter, dropping hints of
Here helpfully, Dawn provides us with a thumbnail sketch of the establishment of
The evolution of Dawn/Hannah’s character is both convincing and revelatory. Banks tells the story in such a fashion that rings true, oftentimes maddeningly short-sighted, and oftentimes obscure even to her at the time but seen clearer against the backdrop of her life, in a larger context. What makes things so convincing in this context is how the character’s changes are outgrowths from previous behaviors and beliefs, that what happens affects her and shifts her perspectives. Any number of I-was-a-sixties-radical stories have jarrings shifts from when these so-called Marxists suddenly come out all libertarian or go-go capitalist. Dawn’s resistance to selling-out (if you like) comes off as both admirable and blinkered at times.
Interestingly enough, Banks takes the road less traveled by making his protagonist relatively unsympathetic. Often described by others as “cold,” she has a kind of selfishness borne of her privileged background. Apparently without even the slightest feeling of gratitude for anyone else or anything anyone has ever done, she cuts ties when convenient, turns herself into a frigid statue when reunited with her parents, leaves her husband and children behind when expedient. Yet, she’s a fascinating character study. Without her third world experiences, of course, one wonders if we’d ever care a little for her.
In part, definitely, this is a result of her upbringing, but also the dehumanizing regiment of self-critical analysis as part of her Weather Underground training. Dawn describes in detail the crushing of her own tastes and preferences, forcing herself into taking sexual partners for instance, not from attraction but for political statements. This absence of real empathy toward everyone including herself, this merely intellectualized, theoretical compassion for the downtrodden of the world is part of her iceblock persona. Consider her depiction of slaughtering chickens for market “...I slap my left hand over the creature’s small head as if I was covering a child’s coin purse.” Throughout all her relations, there is always that down-to-business quality, always that stiff exterior.
Most curious about the entirety of the novel is how Banks manages to work a sympathetic final chapter in the last pages that softens our hard-hearted fascination with Dawn. Ending the narration on September 10, 2001, however seems perhaps a touch gratuitous, maybe a little over the top in encouraging our sympathies. Nevertheless, when Dawn finds out about what monsters the war turned her children into, you can’t help but feel sorry for her, sorry for everyone in this whole sordid tale.
Mary Beth Hurt’s reading is a delight, her African accents surprisingly good, though her vocal characterization of Dawn’s Weather Underground buddy is grating, perhaps intentionally so. She reads this complicated personal narrative with just the right measure of gentle pleading for our understanding and sympathy and Ice Queen reserve to make Dawn Carrington come alive.