Looking for someone to save in Africa

An American woman struggles to save chimpanzees in Liberia while the country goes up in flames.

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Born in 1821 from a weird union of benevolence and racism, Liberia is the bastard child of American history. Liberals in the North and slave holders in the South considered the new African colony either a just or an expedient place to dispose of free blacks. Eventually, about 15,000 African-Americans were shipped to the small coastal colony, where they ruled over the native people in a fashion not unlike the system back home, driving the country through crises of debt and corruption that continue today. The United States, as the conflicted progenitor, has always struggled to determine an appropriate relation to Liberia - alternately helping, ignoring, and exacerbating its plight.

Encompassing this mess of tangled history requires an author capable of bringing it down into the lives of individuals. Russell Banks has risen to the challenge impressively with "The Darling," which grew out of research for his previous novel, a fictionalized life of the abolition terrorist John Brown called "Cloudsplitter," a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 1998.

Banks never seems concerned with making us love or even like his protagonists. The narrator of "The Darling," Hannah Musgrave, is a "permanently mournful," 59-year-old woman looking back with deep regret on a life of terrifying adventure.

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The daughter of a famous pediatrician (a thinly veiled Benjamin Spock), Hannah was given everything except privacy and real emotional attachment. She left her family early, setting in motion a habit of abandonment that continues throughout her life.

In the late 1960s, she joins the Weather Underground, a radical group of white youths who hope to bring about a social revolution. With them, she dedicates herself to violating every bourgeois norm, along with printing phony IDs and making pipe bombs for her comrades.

In the 1970s, still on the FBI's Most Wanted list, she flees to Western Africa and, using her premed credentials, gets a job at a decrepit pharmaceutical lab in Liberia, where she cares for a group of infected chimpanzees. It's not a project that immediately appeals to her, but soon she realizes that these mute, almost human creatures are even better subjects for her devotion than the dispossessed black people she believed she was saving back home.

Banks is at his sharpest on this subject, and Hannah spares herself nothing as she rips away the tissue of her idealism. "Taken to its extreme," she admits bitterly, "empathy is narcissism." Her protests, her activism, her brave efforts to save the chimps, they were all part of "a fantasy of self-sanctification."

Her patronizing idolization of blacks leads her to marry a Liberian official, who considers the political cachet of her white skin useful to his career. She and her husband have three children, and atop the highly stratified society of Monrovia, Hannah finds herself living the same suburban role as her mother, a fate at once depressing and horrifying to her.

As always, Banks is a relentlessly compelling storyteller. Although he's chosen to focus on a fictional character, he threads Hannah's complicated life deep into the contemporary history of Liberia. As the country shifts violently through successive revolutions and tyrants, Hannah's marriage keeps her in a position to coolly observe the chaos that eventually blossoms into one of the most gruesome events of the 20th century.

"The Darling" is not an easy story to read, but it's difficult to put down. The scenes of violence, foreshadowed early in the book, are truly ghastly. Hannah's sexual exploits are far more depressing than arousing. And Banks spares us none of her pomposity and self-aggrandizement. But all these elements go toward making Hannah's story of vain ministration as powerful and realistic as it is.

What's less successful is the fragmentation of the plot toward the end. Hannah's part in breaking Charles Taylor out of a Massachusetts jail sounds silly. Her third trip back to Liberia labors under the burden of Major Emotional Event. And some sections end with ironic quips that make the characters look as though they're mugging for the camera. (Two of Banks's earlier novels, "The Sweet Hereafter" and "Affliction," have been adapted by Hollywood.)

Most disappointing is the very climax of the novel, when competing rebel groups are making their final assault on Monrovia, and Hannah must literally run for her life. She's just seen her husband decapitated on the driveway, her three teenage sons are missing, but she stops to tell a CIA agent who's helping her escape: "I'd like you to make love to me." For one awful moment, I was transported from war-torn Monrovia to James Bond's lifeboat.

These are minor glitches, though, in an absorbing, deadly serious novel that forces us to face the complexity of saving others. Banks's exploration of international relations is no less compelling than his insight into the private bargains we make and break with those we love and abandon.

Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail to Ron Charles.

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