The Lower River / Paul Theroux

Theroux is a well-known author who has written travel books about his expeditions into the wilds of Africa and other inaccessible areas around the globe.  His novel The Mosquito Coast was later made into a film starring Harrison Ford.  The Lower River is his most recent novel, set in a remote village in Malawi, a landlocked country in southeastern Africa.  The village portrayed, Malabo, is off the grid and mostly untouched by modern civilization.  Ellis Hock, the story’s narrator, had spent four years there with the Peace Corps in the 1960s as a young man.  Now in is early sixties, having long considered this African village he once worked in to be an Eden, he decides to return there.  This is prompted by his disintegrating marriage and failure of his menswear store.  He is a man in search of recapturing the magic of his youth.  What he finds upon his return is a village that seems to have regressed in time since his earlier visit.  The school he helped to start has fallen into ruins and the inhabitants seem even more primitive than forty years before.  While welcoming, it soon becomes evident they are only interested in extracting the money he has brought with him.  Cut off from the modern world, he soon finds himself a prisoner in this remote village.  Theroux’s knowledge of Africa serves him well in recreating Africa’s extreme poverty and the desperation this engenders among its people.  He shows how ancient traditions once again hold sway, having overridden the Christian beliefs he encountered earlier.  Despite this realism, I was not drawn into Hock’s dilemma.  The book’s ending, especially, seemed too “by the numbers” for my taste.  Theroux expertly portrays the misery experienced by the Africans, and shows how hunger explains their greed.  But since the focus remains on Hock, the villagers themselves are never given a voice.  Like the narrator, the reader remains an outsider, unable to identify with the plight of these Africans trapped in subsistence living along the Lower River in Malawi.  

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