THE DARLING

By Russell Banks. HarperCollins. 392 pp. $25.95

It is a wonder that more American novelists don't set their works on the African continent. The backdrop is rich, such a potent character in its own right, provided, of course, it is captured right, without condescension. Hemingway's shadow might indeed loom large, but his novels and stories set there were not really about Africa but about Americans in Africa, distressed lovers, with his males engaging in too much macho posturing. Among our contemporary novelists, there are Barbara Kingsolver and Norman Rush, but the list thins quickly from there.

Now comes Russell Banks and his novel The Darling. It is about a disillusioned and seemingly doomed woman, Hannah Musgrave, and her travails in Liberia. Yes, Hannah is white -- a point she often remarks upon -- but her Liberian world is honestly African. Which is to say it is somewhat romantic, brutal, black and quite deadly.

Hannah tells this story from the sweep of memory, a woman in her late fifties looking back on an unimaginable life -- and the losses that mounted. Her past has, of course, anchored itself inside her, despite her efforts to run from it: "After many years of believing that I never dream of anything, I dreamed of Africa."

But first, Hannah's stateside history: New England-born, she was selfish and impecunious in her youth. At Brandeis, where she listened to jazz and dated black men, she was seduced into radicalism. Her ideology stamped upon her, she set off and joined the Weather Underground. Dynamite was rigged; people, we are to assume, died. Hannah fled overseas with Zack, one of her slippery cohorts. Zack settles in Ghana; Hannah, long on fearlessness, moves on, in 1976, to Liberia. "Years ago," she remarks, "when I was in my early thirties and living underground in the States, moving from safe house to safe house, I was taught by comrades more experienced at flight than I that if a person, especially a woman, travels in fear, she is never safe."

Liberia, in reality, is not just any African country, and Banks takes full and knowledgeable advantage of its old and modern history. It has a magnetic link to America: It was established by freed American slaves, and English remains widely spoken. The descendants of those early slaves came to be known as Americo-Liberians, distinguishing themselves from the native-born Liberians. It is in this mix of tribal warfare -- native-born against non-native-born -- that the fuse of Liberia's present-day conflict was lit.

This reviewer covered the Liberian civil war in the 1990s and can attest that Banks gets the sweaty trickery of the land, the deceptions that must be played out by almost everyone, just right. Tribal factions might have smiled during the day at one another, sitting inside dilapidated office buildings, but at night, under darkness, they allowed the decades-old tensions to flourish. The gun battles began anew in the darkness. I heard gunfire nightly; then next morning, remarkably, life resumed -- particularly in the capital of Monrovia -- as if a different script must be adhered to. Rebels I'd seen walking with guns at night walked hallways the next morning, smiles upon their faces.

Liberia kept reminding me of my grandmother's Alabama. Hannah Musgrave quickly realizes she's landed in a place as mystifying as Oz. "Oddly, the streets and buildings of Monrovia and the overall ambience of the city, despite its size and sprawl and mix of architectural styles, didn't so much suggest late-twentieth-century West Africa as it did a 1940s sleepy Southern county seat; and the city might have been a set for a sentimental movie about postwar Dixie, To Kill a Mockingbird maybe -- except that all of the actors in the movie, even the extras, were black."

In Africa, then, Hannah could hide. She could be born again. Above ground.

Into her life walks Woodrow Sundiata, a government official. Woodrow is one of those descendants of exiled American slaves. Hannah and Woodrow marry. She doubts she loves him, but compromises must be made, out in the open. The CIA (why of course!) takes note of Hannah's presence in Liberia. Hannah, her antennae sharp, recognizes the effect of being married to Woodrow. "With me as his wife, however, Woodrow was exotic, a little sexy, and possibly dangerous, as if his newly consecrated American connection gave him access to power and information that were unavailable to other Liberians, even among the elite."

In time Hannah becomes enamored of chimpanzees -- "dreamers," she calls them. She nurses the desperate and starving animals back to health. She also gives birth to three sons and admits she has no passion for motherhood.

Meanwhile, Hannah's Liberia slowly becomes unglued. At the center of that unraveling is Charles Taylor, himself an Americo-Liberian who had fled the country and been imprisoned in Massachusetts for embezzling money from the Liberian government. Banks -- wonderful at melding fact and fiction -- hews close to Taylor's true-life criminal past. His escape remains unsolved to this day. In the novel, Hannah will have more than a little to say about the dramatic turn of events.

Charles Taylor's dream of liberating Liberia from its autocratic and unschooled president, Samuel Doe, had played shrewdly into Hannah's tattered idealism. "And Charles had a plan, he wanted to break out of prison, make his way to Libya, raise a guerrilla army there and return to Liberia and overthrow Samuel Doe; and he had a place, Liberia, that I had come to know better than any other place; and he had a dream: to establish in his country and, as I was beginning to think of it, mine, a socialist democracy that could by its very existence renew the dream of my youth."

But soon enough Taylor, back in Liberia, sets loose upon murderous rampages, blood and bones everywhere. He aims a part of his revenge at Woodrow himself, which means that Woodrow's family is in danger. No need to detail their fates here.

Hannah, daring and brave when she needs to be, soon comes to grips with the fact that there is a price for running, for depositing one's dreams in strange lands. "Everything that lives in Liberia and that you kill will eventually kill you for it," Hannah realizes. "Something rots beneath the soil and taints the air above it."

But, living on a farm back in the states after having fled Liberia and its dangers, leaving behind family and friends, Hannah dreams of Africa and grapples with the emotions that have long bothered her: "When you part with someone you love, there's usually an aura of grief attached. But saying goodbye has never been difficult for me. I do it quickly and with little felt emotion, until afterwards, when I'm by myself and it's done and it's too late for any feelings that might slow or clog my departure. I sat at the foot of my eldest son's rumpled, empty bed alongside the two empty beds of his brothers and saw that for the first time in nearly eight years I was alone again. And for the first time since the day I went underground, I felt strong and free."

For years now, Russell Banks has explored race, political dramas, migrations. As our best novelists must do, he creates multidimensional characters, stories that make you think how life really must be, or once happened to be. It is not for Banks -- whose last novel, Cloudsplitter, told of John Brown's messianic odyssey during America's era of slavery -- to offer the thin novella that so often passes these days for literature. His are big novels, with daring, sweep and depth. In The Darling, he is working at full strength, and readers are in his debt.

In the end, you might well not love Hannah Musgrave, might even revile her, but you won't forget her honesty and the bravery in it: "I was a bad mother, yes, but not a neglectful one. And I was an inattentive, detached wife, but not a cruel or malicious one." Her wrongs are hardly on the level of the warlords, but they prey on the mind nevertheless.

"Liberia," concludes Banks's unforgettable Hannah, "is a permanently haunted land filled with vengeful ghosts, and I had committed many sins there." *

Wil Haygood is a writer for the Style section of The Washington Post. His book "In Black and White: The Life of Sammy Davis Jr." recently won the Zora Neale Hurston-Richard Wright Legacy Award.

Russell Banks