The Lower River: A Novel

  • Paul theroux
  • Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • 336 pp.

Returning to Malawi after 40 years, a man is unsettled to find that the village he so idealized in his mind no longer matches his affectionate memories.

Reviewed by Patricia Bochi

“The death sentence he had once feared, he was now serving: the family business, his wife, his child, his house in the Lawrence Estates, inherited from his mother after she died.” Such is how Ellis Hock — the middle-aged protagonist in Paul Theroux’s latest novel The Lower River — introduces himself: a misfit, a victim of life circumstances, straddling two worlds, taking part in neither.

Yet, in the wake of his divorce, Hock, who runs an antiquated menswear store in Medford, Massachusetts, finds himself alone and ready to return to the African village in Malawi, where he has yearned to return for 40 years.

Once there he discovers that nothing has changed, observing with the objectivity of an ethnographer that: “None of what he saw from the car was lovely: the Africa of people, not of animals …” It is no coincidence that the beginning of the novel, which draws from the author’s own experience in the Peace Corps, teaching English in Malawi, reads like a memoir. Theroux renders the languor that envelops the people, the landscape and the mood of the place with a deftness that only comes from intimate knowledge. Both sensual and poetical, his descriptions transport us to Africa, reminding us that Theroux is also a seasoned travel writer: “Mud huts, thatched roofs, the hot dust holding footprints in powder on narrow paths; and the silence of the solemn sun-baked bush was broken only by the wolf whistles of certain birds and the screech of insects like the howl of one untuned violin string under a dragging bow.”

When Hock reaches Malabo, the small village where he spent the happiest four years of his life, he is recognized and welcomed by the headman, Festus Manyenga, as “the White Man with no fear of snakes.” And although the people he knew are all dead, the young villagers know of him, like a mythical figure, and make him the guest of honor. He plunges into the village’s life. And as the village’s somnolence beguiles him, time collapses and he surrenders to its bliss. But the school where he taught is in ruin. The church and clinic are gone. And no one is interested in fixing anything, only in asking him for money in a shockingly transparent way. Soon reality sets in. Feeling useless and exploited, “He grew sad, admiring his younger, hopeful self.” As Hock gradually measures the deep disconnect that exists between him and the villagers, he is unaware that he has begun his journey back. The village somnolence has turned into a woeful torpor, and he begins to regard the isolation and vegetative state of the Lower River, where “the stone under which they [the villagers] lay never moved,” as a trap of his own making. His ability to “read” the mind of the villagers shows its flipside. He sees the villagers’ lack of trust in “their guarded smiles, their sidelong looks, their narrowed eyes, the way they floated a suggestion — ‘We can manage better if we have a new well’ — and glanced to see if he’d bite.” All the villagers want from him is money, and unlike the pillar he used to feel when the villagers looked up to him with a true sense of respect and gratitude, he feels like a stranger, one of those aid workers, from whom one draws money, like an ATM.

With the realization that he belongs to the past, like his memories, Hock has come full circle. Just like his marriage and the family business at home, obsolescence has ended his dream, and he wants to leave.

But the novel has more in store for us, as midway through the book the plot thickens. We root for Hock, who finds himself a captive, not allowed (out of false deference) to leave his hut or do anything by himself. The atmosphere becomes as suffocating as the heat. His malaise, which verges on fear, is palpable.

As he goes through a series of hellish adventures, Hock also comes to understand what is at the root of the cynicism, the ruthless behavior, and the attitude of “assisted,” which he sees having taken hold of the young villagers. Slowly Hock leads us to the much deeper issue of international aid filtered through four decades, and the Western and African perspectives: on the one hand, the outsiders’ — well-intentioned (the Peace Corps, the young Hock) or self-interested (the “Agence Anonyme”) — on the other, the Africans’ — grateful and hopeful (the old villagers of Malabo) or ruthless and cynical (the young villagers like Manyenga).

What starts out as Theroux’s protagonist’s personal journey to the past and the fulfillment of his dream becomes, through his self-awakening to the reality, a political commentary on the impact and ultimately the value of international aid to poor countries. Hoping to pick up where one has left things off 40 years ago is a huge leap of faith. If nothing else, Ellis Hock ought to have read Thomas Wolfe’s You Can’t Go Home Again. Yet fearlessly (and thankfully for the reader), Theroux corners his protagonist, and lets him face his demons and own up to their consequences.

What evolves from an otherwise quaint premise is a complex, disquieting story with a twist that mounts in intensity, yet unravels at the unhurried pace of its lethargic setting, behind which deadly snakes and erratic beings lurk and strike. Sensual, intriguing and totally unpredictable, The Lower River is a personal journey turned awry, a psychological thriller that masterfully opens up to broader moral issues.

Patricia Bochi is a writer who lives in the Washington, D.C., area.

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