Banks branches out

buy this @ The Darling by Russell Banks (HarperCollins.

The Darling by Russell Banks (HarperCollins Canada), 392 pages, $35 cloth. Rating: NNNN

RUSSELL BANKS reading with Panos Karnezis , Jeffrey Moore and Ernesto Quiñonez Friday (October 22), 8 pm, Premiere Dance Theatre.

RUSSELL BANKS interviewed by DAVID YOUNG Saturday (Octobe 23), 4 pm, Premiere Dance Theatre.

Rating: NNNN

Russell Banks’s The Darling addresses race, American foreign policy, terrorism and sexual politics with the pacing of a thriller and complete disregard for the party line.

He has always been adept at telling stories in voices outside his own. There is the drug-addled 14-year-old in Rule Of The Bone, a teenage girl and a middle-aged alcoholic in The Sweet Hereafter (adapted to film by Atom Egoyan), neither of them anything like their Pulitzer Prize finalist creator.

The Darling introduces us to Hannah Musgrave, an upper-class suburban girl in the 70s who becomes a CIA-hunted civil rights activist who plants bombs. She escapes to Liberia, marries a Liberian civil servant, has three sons and founds a chimp sanctuary.

Emotionally blunted by a narcissistic mother, ruthless and politically naive, Musgrave becomes a metaphor for America.

“I was writing about principled violence, which is at the centre of the American psyche,” says Banks, looking fit at the Random House offices in close-cropped white hair and beard, cowboy boots and jeans.

“And I write to go places I want to go, like Liberia,” says Banks.

He got as far as Sierra Leone, balking at the Liberian mess of blocked roads and murdering gangs of psychologically savaged Liberian kids.

“I thought, “If I do this my wife is going to be pissed,'” he laughs, conceding to the influence of the women in his life.

Banks has four daughters from his first and second marriages, and he and poet Chase Twitchell, his fourth wife, have been together for 14 years.

Three days into the book tour, he’s bemused that he’s been fielding questions about his narrator’s female-ness.

“If Hannah were a man,” he says, “you’d see her as a stoical, tight-lipped, Hemingway-esque existential hero. You’d see her as a philosophically interesting character and you wouldn’t worry about judging or condemning her or idealizing her.

“Is she the virgin or a whore? She’s not either. She’s not a virgin or a whore.”

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