It's an exciting premise with which to open the book. As Hannah smuggles her way back into Liberia, the quest is on. However, it's never followed up. The book then unfolds in a series of flashbacks, describing Hannah's life in the lead-up to her flight to Liberia, her time there, and the years she spent in the US before returning. In the end, the opening of the book is rounded up in a desultory fashion some four hundred pages later, with Hannah's sons becoming just another of the things she's left behind in her protracted, curiously soul-less life.
Banks appears to be attempting to create a narrative which examines the fate of idealism in the US, and the way in which its seeming extinction has impacted on its global role. The choice of Liberia as a setting, a country founded by freed US slaves in the 19th century, seems both a commentary on the course of global politics in the centuries that have followed, and perhaps a metaphor for a land whose politics are governed by self-interest. At the heart of this is the curious figure of Hannah, whose naivity is matched by her lack of heart, someone prepared to walk out on almost any situation if needs be, a supposed idealist in practice ruled by the demands of realpolitik.
The book is narrated in Hannah's voice. It's never clear to what extent we're supposed to take at face value her constant philosophising, self-justification and mental nurdling about the fate of her parents, her ex-lovers, and her family. The farm which has become in later life her redoubt, something of a Utopian feminist collective, where the workers go skinny dipping with the owner, gradually fades out of the narrative, so that when it reappears in the closing stages the effect is jarring. As the book goes on there are several clumsy narrative devices, as Hannah helps to spring Charles Taylor, the Liberian opponent to Doe, from a US prison, and her former Weather Underground companion Zach pops up unexpectedly to keep the story ticking over. At times it feels as though the architecture of the novel's ambition dwarfs the actuality of the book's achievement. Seeking to write a grand novel about the late twentieth century, Banks finds himself occasionally floundering, no more so than in the book's closing pages' references to 911, which seem shoe-horned in to lend added weight.
The only beings with whom Hannah seems to construct lasting and meaningful relationships are the chimpanzees she protects in her sanctuary, chimpanzees which the civil war will eventually devour along with everything else. Reflecting on this (p 340) Hannah says that 'I dealt with my chimpanzees as though I were one myself. And what was wrong with this? What was ethically and even practically wrong with having empathy towards the other? For a long time I answered, Nothing. Nothing at all. It's good politics...' until she says, you betray them, when 'taken to its extreme, perhaps even pathological, form, empathy is narcissism.' In some ways this seems to be getting to the nub of the book: Hannah can empathise with other cultures, but she can never sympathise, or identify herself with them. Hence she's constantly discovering that her instincts only lead towards heartlessness. However, this seems to be a problem the book, as well as the narrator, faces. It leads us into the world of Liberia, and its dark African politics, but it can't help but posit itself firmly on the outside, and there's never any insight on the African perspective of the chaos that's been unleashed in the country. The reader views it in the same way as Hannah, a meaningless hell, where children turn from being adorable teenagers into merciless, psychopathic killers at the drop of a hat, in spite of a loving, stable upbringing. Why are Hannah's children transformed into monsters? The book offers no answers, leaving the reader to conclude that it must be because they're African, they belong to some 'Other' which a US citizen, even though she's their mother, will never be able to connect with. In spite of all her philosophising on her own fractured relationship with her parents, Hannah comes up with no rationale for what happens to her own offspring. Her quest is fruitless. She goes back to her farm. She is none the wiser. And neither, after her story, are we.